Friday, 27 August 2010

Victory for common sense (and me) as Cornwall Council reviews top salaries

Local journalists have been extensively briefed over the last couple of days that the salaries of the top earners at County Hall are to be reviewed as part of the emergency budget process. That's good news and a success for the campaign that has been run by local papers and myself over the last months.

The review is also said to include consideration of ending the vast payoffs to senior officers. Although the fact that the amounts of these now need to be made public is entirely coincidental.

Cornwall Council has one of the top 30 earning officers in the country. I don't begrudge individuals seeking to earn as much as their talents allow, but I think that the salary levels at County Hall were set wrongly when the new authority was established. In those cases where the responsibilities are the same as in the old set up, there is no justification for a rise. And where responsibilities have increased, the additional pay should be modest.

As for payoffs, it is still a mystery as to why a director who left of his own accord should have been given a payoff of almost £80,000 of taxpayer's money. A confidentiality agreement prevents questions being asked, but the last word on this subject from the Council Leader was that he felt that it was good value for money in this case. Now it appears that officers departing in the future cannot expect to receive the same value for money treatment.

A few months ago, I put the question to the Council about cutting the salaries of the top officers. A similar question was raised by a member of the public. Both got a short and sweet response to the effect that the Council had no inclination to reconsider top salaries.

Now that stance has been abandoned and local Tory MPs have been heaping praise on the Leader for his brave decision. It is certainly to be welcomed, but it's a pity that Mr Eustice and Ms Newton weren't a bit quicker off the mark.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Dear Eric Pickles...

... If you are serious about saving money in local councils, why don't you begin by stopping your councillors resigning after just 13 days meaning yet another by-election at a cost to local taxpayers of about £5,000.

Vacancy on Launceston Town Council

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

A by-election can be triggered if ten electors petition the returning officer. If this doesn't happen then the Town Council will invite anyone interested to make themselves known and will consider who to co-opt at a future meeting.

The last time there was a vacancy there were at least five applicants, but no by-election was triggered.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Camerons have a Cornish daughter

Congratulations to David and Samantha Cameron on the birth of their daughter - born a couple of weeks early at Treliske Hospital whilst they are on holiday in Cornwall.

A-levels, universities and Gary Lineker's son

So why did Gary Lineker's potty mouthed son fail to get into uni? Was it the Pre-U exams adopted by his private school in place of A-levels, or was it because he went on holiday just before he took them?

Every year, the A-level results bring record pass marks and accusations that they are getting easier. In fact, the biggest change was moving from a quota system (whereby only the top x% were awarded A grades) to an achievement system (whereby anyone who achieves over a certain number of marks is awarded an A grade).

But this year there is a new story - many universities are full and tens of thousands of prospective students are going to struggle to get a place at all. One of those people is George Lineker. Except that in his case he studied for a different type of exam - the new Pre-U which is based entirely on exams with no coursework elements.

According to the Independent, George's Facebook reaction to failing to make the required grade was:

"Didn't get into uni... cheers school u massive knobbers!"

The article goes on to say that, rather than revising, George went on a holiday to Tenerife just before his exams and points out that he is seen on the London party circuit with a glamour model.

I'm not going to get holier than thou about his holiday. In the Easter holidays before my A-levels I went with two friends to Spain on a camping holiday. My excuse was that I was studying Spanish and I took a couple of history text books with me which never got opened during the trip but weighed a ton. As it turned out, I did better in my history exam than in Spanish...

Libraries are about more than books

The BBC is talking lots today about libraries. The Government has talked about reviewing library services and Cornwall is one of the areas which is piloting ideas for running library services in a different way. What this means is unclear from the press release (I've asked for details).

But almost all the coverage to date has been about borrowing novels. That may be a fundamental part of what a library does, but it is far from being the only thing. So whilst you can put bookshelves in pubs or even in red phone boxes (as BBC Radio Cornwall suggested this morning), that does not make them libraries.

Libraries are also about information. They have newspapers and reference books and, across Cornwall, free access to the internet and assistance to show infrequent browsers how to use them.

And libraries are also about promoting reading and learning. I know that across Cornwall the librarians do a great job on this but I'd like to single out Jesse Foot in Bodmin Library. He and his team put on very large numbers of special events in the library itself for younger readers - including a very special Dr Who day. They also run groups for other groups and do lots of outreach work.

Which leads me to my next point - using volunteers and others in our libraries. One of the ideas that has been put about is that we should hand libraries over to volunteers to run. I think that many of the functions that are currently being done by trained librarians could be done by volunteers - issuing books, stacking shelves and so on. But this should not be done so that we can get rid of librarians. It should be done to free librarians to do the work that they are trained and qualified to do - promoting reading and literacy and helping people to find information.

Monday, 23 August 2010

LEP clarity

First we had Cornwall Council unanimously agreeing that a Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership was the best way forward.

Then Alec Robertson co-operated with a press release which seemed to indicate that a Devonwall LEP was still being considered - certainly this was the message picked up by the local press.

Then Jim Currie stepped in to clarify that the Council only had one policy - but failed to rule out being part of two bids.

Finally, Alec Robertson has confirmed that there will be no other LEP bid. (But apparently nobody thought to tell Devon)

Phew!

There are serious lessons to come out of this mess.

The first is that the sovereignty of Cornwall Councillors making decisions in full council is not as absolute as we would like to believe. Despite what everybody believed to be a cast iron decision, some people were apparently still working in contradiction to that policy after it was passed. If there are people at the Council who believe that councillors do not make the policy decisions, then they need to be disabused of this notion as soon as possible.

Second, the capability of the Cabinet to follow through on policy. Alec Robertson agreed a press release which at least implied something very different from agreed policy. Subsequently he had to correct himself and have his deputy issue a statement. Did he really believe in something different or was he simply hoodwinked by those clever people from Devon? Whatever the case, it was a mess which did the Cabinet and Cornwall's LEP bid no service at all.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Travel Advisory: Bosnia - Go there

I'm back from my training trip to Sarajevo.I used to go there two or three times a year as a trainer but this was my first trip for about five years and boy has the city of Sarajevo changed.

If anyone is looking for a decent holiday not too far away then I'd definitely recommend Sarajevo.

The city is divided into four municipalities officially, but for the tourist you can probably look at it as being the old quarter, the church and embassy quarter, and the rest.

The rest comprises lots of 'could be anywhere' architecture and bog standard hotels and facilities. The tourist attractions are few and far between and, if you are staying here, you're missing out.

The church and embassy bit is much more attractive. There's a heck of a lot of nice architecture, including some rather bizarre stuff. There is a huge mix of styles including a catholic seminary apparently modeled on St Mary Clement Methodist Chapel in Truro.

Of course, the 'point' of Sarajevo is that it's a huge melting pot for religions. It has even been described as the Jerusalem of Europe. There are a lot of mosques and minarets and, because we were there during Ramadan, a gun to mark the breaking of the fast each day. There are catholic churches and a cathedral in an apostolic style. There are also orthodox churches and an orthodox cathedral currently undergoing extensive internal refurbishment - but it is still magnificent.

Once you get into the old muslim quarter, you are in a very different type of society. This is where Sarajevans go for their evening stroll - the sort of 'see and be seen' walk common in Italy and elsewhere. It is also the home of cafe culture with lots of open air eating including coffee shops, cevapi houses, burek sellers and full on restaurants.

For the uninitiated, burek are rolled tubes of filo pastry with meat, egg or spinach and cheese fillings. They are sold by the kilo (which can lead to massive over-ordering) and usually consumed with yoghurt. Cevapi are most definitely NOT kebabs, despite the fact they consist of spiced meat sold in pitta bread.

If you eat out in Sarajevo, burek will cost about 8-10 kmarks per kilo (about two kmarks to the pound or Euro, the latter are accepted just about everywhere). A cevapi meal will set you back about 4 km and a decent meal in a restaurant will cost roughly 20 km with beers about 4km each - so prices are not extraordinarily cheap.

Tourism has increased markedly over the last five years. There are plenty of tour groups being shown the sights or Sarajevo, including the 'Sarajevo Roses' - shell holes which have been filled with red plastic to serve as a constant reminder of the civil war. Many buildings also have bullet holes.

Out of Sarajevo, there's a pretty good bus service and a train line running down to Mostar and Dubrovnic.

I would really recommend a trip to Sarajevo.

Pics (from top): Sarajevo city; riverside architecture; Catholic cathedral; the place where World War One started; burek; a Sarajevo rose; main market;

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

What's the time in Bosnia?

I'm in Sarajevo for four days training parties in campaigning. The idea of the training, which is funded by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, is to help build more robust parties which are cross community (ie not aligned with Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks).

But the biggest problem so far has been deciding what time it is. Bosnia operates on Central European Time which is one hour ahead of the UK. In the old days you would simply put your watch an hour ahead when you landed or kept it on UK time but remembered that it was an hour behind local time.

But not any more.

I don't wear a watch and rely on my mobile phone to tell me the time. So we landed and I didn't bother to change the time on my phone. When I went to bed I set my alarm for 6.30am - so that it would go off at 7.30am local time.

Except that my very clever iphone had changed time zones of its own accord and I got up an hour before I needed to. Mind you, of the four of us on this trip, we came up with three different possible times between us.

The training's going well tho!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Cornwall Council ignoring councillors and backing Devonwall LEP

At the last Full Council meeting, Cornwall Councillors unanimously backed a motion put forward by myself and fellow Lib Dems calling for a Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership to replace the unaccountable Regional Development Agency.

Now it appears that the Cabinet are set to ignore that decision and to bid with Devon, Plymouth and Torbay for a 'Peninsula LEP'.

This is a huge step in the wrong direction and it tramples all over the democratic will of the Council. Merging Cornwall with Devon will mean we end up as the poor relation once again. Cornwall's needs are very different from those of Devon and, as the smaller partner, it will be very easy for us to be overlooked.

According to press reports, Cornwall will be part of bids for two different LEPs - one just covering Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and the second including Devon as well.

I have no objection to Cornwall talking to other areas about some issues, but it should be joint work between two distinct organisations, not a merger which damages our ability to stand on our own two feet and cedes control over our affairs to others.

I have written to the Council's Monitoring Officer asking him to clarify whether ignoring the decision of the full council is legal.

Packhorse Bridge back open

I'm delighted to report that the Packhorse Bridge between Riverside and Westbridge Road is back open again following work by Cornwall Council.

Last week I reported that the bridge had been closed as water pressure had damaged one of the arches. For two days earlier this week staff worked to make it safe and rebuild the damaged sections and it is now open for pedestrians once again.

Many thanks to Cornwall Council for their swift action.

Keep Cornwall Whole

Last night was the first meeting of the Keep Cornwall Whole campaign. This is the group which has come together to fight threats to create parliamentary constituencies which cross the Cornwall - Devon border.

The threat comes from the wording of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which proposes that there should be a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and that the number of electors in each seat should not vary by more than 5% from the average. Cornwall would be due about five and a half seats under the new numbers and both five seats and six seats would be well outside the 5% margin for error.

So the only answer would be to cross the border and have a 'Devonwall' seat. This is something that I and the vast majority of my colleagues oppose. We know that all three Lib Dem MPs oppose it, as do at least two of the three Cornish Tory MPs. Labour Leadership candidate David Milliband also gave his support to the campaign. Of course MK and many others also back the campaign too. Our campaign is very much a cross party one with all of Cornwall speaking together.

Our aim is to persuade the Government that the eastern boundary of Cornwall should be protected in law - alongside those of Scotland and Wales.

The Bill will be debated by MPs for the first time on 6th September. That debate will be on the principle of the changes - to introduce a fairer voting system and to reduce the number of MPs. On that, both the Lib Dems and Conservatives agree (and Labour agree with the voting system change of it). So for that reason there is unlikely to be much of a rebellion on that date. BBC Radio Cornwall's Graham Smith is therefore wrong to identify that as the key date.

The important debates will come when the Bill is debated line by line in committee and then in the House of Lords. It is there that those who back Keep Cornwall Whole will be seeking to make changes so that there are no Devonwall constituencies.

Council webcasting to continue

The webcasting of Cornwall Council's main meetings has been a huge success to date with more than 18000 people watching live or archived versions. So it is no surprise that the working group looking at the pilot project has recommended that the facility be made permanent.

The group also considered whether more meetings should be covered. They have decided to recommend the Cabinet and planning meetings should also be covered as these are the most important meetings and those that affect residents the most.

For more on the ins and outs of the decision, see Jeremy Rowe's blog.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Knight and Day - Utter rubbish

Action movie? Rom-com? Complete shambles? Knight and Day tries to be both of the first two but ends up the third. It's the film that Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz were promoting when they appeared on Top Gear a couple of weeks ago. Even Clarkson's cringeworthy faux flirting was more entertaining than the movie itself.

Knight and Day had a 'troubled' production. Cruise was apparently the fifth choice to play the male lead (how the mighty have fallen) and Diaz the second choice to play opposite. The script went through a dozen writers - and boy does it show. There's a thread of a story there, but every time there's a decent idea, it's snatched away by the next writer who has decided to go in a different direction.

The plot centres on Roy Miller (Cruise), a secret agent who is on the run from 'THE BAD GUYS'. He bumps into June Havens (Diaz) at an airport and starts shooting people. Ninety minutes later, the credits roll.

In among the shootings are a couple of slower slushy scenes and a couple of the worst running gags going.

Also appearing in the film are Peter Sarsgaard as Cruise's fellow spy and Paul Dano as the wonderkid scientist. I last saw Dano in There Will be Blood where he was brilliant. This time he wasn't allowed to be anything other than one dimensional. Sarsgaard was allowed a second dimension but failed to to take advantage.

Cruise boasts that he likes to do most of the stunts himself. I don't know how true that is but there was some fairly nondescript driving in there as well as silly CGI in the scene involving the running of the bulls - curiously relocated from Pamplona to Seville.

The cinema seat I was in to watch this monstrosity (in Truro's Plaza) was covered in chewing gum. To say that wasn't the worst thing about the afternoon perhaps says it all.

Has Kew Gardens moved to Cornwall?

Kew Gardens has moved to Cornwall. At least that's the impression given by the Visit Cornwall tourism website.

The website is the main tool used by the Council funded Cornwall Development Company to market Cornwall and to attract visitors. Not surprisingly, there's a map with text that says:

Don't forget nearly 95% of Cornwall is now on Google Street View too.

If you click on that link, you are re-directed to Google Street View. So which Cornish location does it alight on? The Eden Project? St Michael's Mount? Launceston Castle?

None of these, but that well known Cornish attraction Kew Gardens - 200 miles away in South West London.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

East Cornwall Multi-use Trail

One of the projects being pursued by the Council at the moment is the multi-use train in East Cornwall. That might not sound like a very important or sexy project, but it could bring huge improvements to places like Launceston.

Virtually everyone has heard of the Camel Trail and the benefits it has brought to Padstow, Wadebridge and Bodmin - as well as the places in between. In North Devon there is the Tarka Trail which has done much the same and Devon are now re-constructing the old Granite Way which links the Tarka Trail with the Tamar.

Our new trail aims to link the Granite Way with the Camel Trail, predominantly along the old railway line. Once complete, it will allow walkers, bike and horse riders to travel from Barnstaple to Padstow - or on any section in between. That will bring lots of tourists to our area and hopefully provide lots of new customers for existing local businesses and attractions. It should also provide new opportunities for the likes of cycle hire, B&Bs and so on. It will also be publicised as part of a European network of such trails and so should bring in many visitors from overseas.

It's not just visitors who will be using the new trail. Local people know that it is surprisingly difficult to go for a walk in the countryside from Launceston. There are very few paths and the roads tend to be quite busy - not an attractive walking proposition. So the new trail will open up a lot of options.

The trail will be funded by a mixture of money from Europe, from those promoting cycling and a small amount from Cornwall Council. The tricky thing is that all these different sources rely on each other, so all the partners need to be kept on board or the whole thing will fail. This is particularly difficult in the present climate.

Key to the success of this project is the support of local landowners over whose property the trail will run. Last Friday, the local Cornwall Councillors met with some of them to discuss the prospects for the trail. Overall, there was a good level of support with most businesses seeing the prospect of increased returns. Of course, there are also some concerns and part of the reason for the meeting was to identify these and work to make sure they were ironed out.

I'm keen that this project is seen to benefit the whole of our town and so the next meeting will be opened up to all businesses in Launceston so that they can see the opportunities for themselves. I'll post details of the meeting when I have them.

Kensey Valley Meadow latest

Cornwall Council has now written to residents of Kensey Valley Meadow about the on-going delays with the adoption of the roads of the development.

As regular readers will know, the Council originally said that they aimed to adopt the roads by the end of the last financial year (ie 31st March 2010). This deadline came and went with no adoption and no news. I've been pressing the council to adopt the highways as soon as possible, to explain the delays to residents and to apologise.

Today I've been sent a copy of the letter going out to residents. It includes an apology for the delays and an explanation of the current situation. Whilst there's no definitive completion date, there is a commitment to conclude the adoption as soon as possible and that's a huge step forward. Many thanks to the Council for listening to the concerns of local residents and for producing this letter.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam

Adoption of New Highways at Kensey Valley, Launceston

I write with reference to the adoption of Highways on the above site.

As you will be aware, there has been some delay between the roads being constructed and their adoption (the process by which liability for their maintenance is passed to Cornwall Council as the Highway Authority).

The development as a whole was presented by the developers to the Council for adoption in 5 distinct phases. Each phase was subject to a separate adoption agreement. In short, the agreements generally state the Council will adopt highways following a 12 month maintenance period which commences once the road has been constructed to an acceptable standard. At this particular site, there have been two additional complicating factors. The roads detailed in the earlier phases cannot be adopted until the ‘Spine Road’ (the road connecting the development to the existing maintained highway) becomes adopted and ownership of the development has changed hands a number of times requiring changes to previously drafted agreements.

Fortunately, the current developer is working with the Council in order to facilitate the adoption of all 5 phases as soon as possible. To that end the Council has agreed that the usual 12 month maintenance period will be reduced to only 3 months. Plans have now been forwarded to the Council which will allow it to draw up the necessary paperwork to facilitate the agreement regarding the ‘Spine Road’ which is incorporated within Phase 5 of the development and amend those agreements in place for the remaining 4 phases. That work is being given priority.

I understand that you were advised the roads would be adopted by 31st March 2010 and I am sorry that this has not taken place. Unfortunately, I am unable to provide a definitive date for completion of the process but can advise you that on completion of the agreements and the final construction and maintenance period (plus time to allow rectify any remedial work which may be identified) the roads will become highways maintainable by the Council.

Please rest assured Cornwall Council is working with the current developer to complete the agreements as soon as possible.

My 1000th Blogpost

It's a milestone! This is the 1000th post I have made on this blog.

When I started in February 2008, I thought that this would be a mixture of national stuff, sport, TV and whatever else I felt like writing about with a bit of politics thrown in. I even contemplated putting a weekly recipe or book review on here. It hasn't exactly turned out like that.

Whilst there have been a few random postings (the latest of which was my giving up smoking post last week), I've focused more and more on Cornwall Council and local politics. I still comment on national stuff from time to time and still have lots of photos when I'm doing work for the Lib Dems (especially around conferences and the general election).

I hope that this season I'll be a bit more disciplined about putting up match reviews and photos from Cornish All Blacks games.

But at its heart, this blog was set up to concentrate on what's happening in Launceston and how the decisions being made by Cornwall Council affect us in our town. I tag every post I write and the most common tag is 'politics'. That's not so much because I'm a politician (which I am), but because almost everything we do has a political aspect to it, even if we don't usually think of it that way. Politics matters to our everyday lives and therefore the people who make the political decisions matter. That's why Cornwall Council matters and why the elected members - of whatever party or none - are all politicians. We all need to be held to account, but this means we need to be constantly explaining to our local residents what we are doing and what we are thinking.

So here's to another 1000 posts.

Coming up soon will be Cornwall Council's emergency budget. Will it threaten local frontline services? Can we keep and expand localism and really involve more local people in the decisions that affect them? Will the coalition government survive the full five years and what will be the shape of the Lib Dems at the end of that process? Will the Cornish All Blacks be competitive this season? Will I still be off the ciggies come Christmas?

If you have any thoughts about this blog, please do let me know. Either reply in the comments or feel free to send me an email - alexfolkes (at) gmail (dot) com.

Staying local in North Cornwall

Yesterday a group of councillors took a bus trip around North Cornwall. The point was to try to find a new venue for local meetings, especially planning meetings and, crucially, to keep these meetings as close to the people they affect as possible.

I've complained in the past about the centralisation of Cornwall council in Truro. In particular, when there was a big planning application for Launceston, the meeting was held in Truro making it inaccessible to local people who wanted to find out what was going on.

For smaller planning applications, the decisions are made by the 'Planning Committee East', a group that makes decisions for the former North Cornwall and Caradon district areas. They alternate their meetings between Liskeard and Camelford, but this situation will have to change because of the council's plans to co-locate Police services to the Camelford offices and therefore lose the facility to hold public meetings.

A number of us were concerned that this would mean the centralisation of all meetings in Liskeard and therefore make them far less accessible to people in North Cornwall. So we were trying to find an alternative venue.

Our trip took us to Bodmin, Wadebridge and another venue in Camelford. One of the requirements of any Council meeting held in public is that local residents can hear what is being said - so we want a decent public address system, microphones and a hearing loop. There also needs to be a large enough room, plenty of parking and all at a reasonable cost. Regrettably, none of the venues had everything we needed.

In my view, the best solution would be to stay in the current Camelford location. It is, of course, a good idea to work with other public bodies where possible. But this should not come at the cost of proper local decision making. We'll keep on looking for a good venue but in the meantime I hope that the Council reconsiders their decision to prevent the use of the current venue.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Is the Independent Group a happy ship?

I know that to many people the concept of an Independent 'group' on Cornwall Council is an anathema. Why should a lot of individuals who were elected without party support band together in a common purpose? Whilst the hackneyed view of independents in local politics is that they are Conservatives in disguise, Cornwall's bunch are a very disparate lot. For sure, there are some who are true blue Tories, and some who are probably more right wing than that. Others are more Green or MK in their outlook and I'm pretty sure that at least a couple of them vote Labour - even in Cornwall. And then there are those who simply don't know what they are.

But, despite the disparity, after the elections last year, 31 of the 32 people elected as independents chose to group together and enter a formal coalition administration with the Conservatives. The one 'stand alone' was Bob Egerton.

But I wonder just how happy a ship Neil Burden's Indie group is at the moment? This week came the news that Neil Plummer has formally joined the MK group after losing his role as chair of the Strategic Planning Committee. And Andrew Wallis tweeted on Thursday his unhappiness with Cllr Burden - when challenged about his status as Group Leader, he replied 'not in my eyes'.

The Tories have also seen their numbers dwindle with the sad death of Richard Stewart last year (the by-election was won by the Lib Dems) and the expulsion of Bill Jenkin who is awaiting court of sexual assault charges. But it is in the Indie Group where most problems seem to lie at the moment.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Giving up smoking (again)

If you come across a slightly manic looking, crazily chewing person in Launceston over the next few weeks, that'll be me. I've given up smoking (again).

I think it's the eighth or ninth time that I've given up. Ironically, I've always been pretty successful at the task. Although not, of course, successful enough to quit for good.

One of my early attempts involved giving up at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. It wasn't the greatest party anyway, but I managed to make it infinitely worse for the person I had gone with. What should have been a time of careless abandon turned into increasingly tetchy behaviour. Lesson one in giving up smoking - give up from when you get up.

I truly admire those who give up on willpower alone. For me, the advent of nicotine patches and other aids has helped hugely. When they first came out, nicotine patches did something weird to my skin and brought me out in a rash that lasted for several weeks. So I had to avoid putting one anywhere they had been before. It's surprisingly easy to run out of arm space.

It may be psychological, but they also seem to give an extra hit of nicotine if you hit them. Hence the sight of me furiously slapping my arm in a particularly tedious meeting.

Using the patches I could give up for as much as a couple of months. The experts say that the first few weeks are the worst. I got through that time relatively easily, but succumbed when the hardest part was behind me.

The last time I gave up (before this time, obviously) was on the day of the St Austell Bay by-election last October. Elections are pretty stressful events and polling day is usually the worst. I just figured that if I could make it through that then I could do anything. I was right (in as much as I ever am), but two months later was back on the Marly Lights.

I was determined to quit again though. This time for good (yeah, right). The trouble is that I'm an inconsistent smoker. There are some people who smoke 20 a day every day and never waver. For me, it varies (varied?) hugely - anything from 10 to 20. In my nicotine addled brain I decided that I would be wasting cash if I quit when I was halfway through the packet. So I carried on for days (at £6.13 a pack) until bedtime and the end of the pack looked like coinciding. That day was yesterday. So in the afternoon I went up to the pharmacy counter at Tesco and got myself my latest batch of nicotine replacement materials. I've got seven days worth of patches and about 70 pieces of gum. (By the way, the gum you get today actually tastes like regular gum, rather than licking out pub ashtrays).

I'm currently about 18 hours cigarette free. I've been out and about most of the day so I don't just sit around and eat, but I haven't yet stocked up on cigarette replacement food. Those little baby carrots you can get pre-peeled are the best for me. You can munch a whole bag and not feel like Gok Wan would shoot you and they also have a bit of cigarette like shape.

I haven't yet had a truly zealoty conversation, but I'm sure it will come soon. The sort of chat where I lambast someone for the very idea of such a disgusting habit. (Hypocrite, moi?)

So if you see me in the street chewing, wish me luck. If you see me smoking, demand all my smoking materials and destroy them.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Launceston Tourist Information Centre - an update

Over the last two days I've been trying to find out more about the decision to close Launceston Tourist Information Centre - as reported here.

My understanding of the situation is that Cornwall Council does not want to keep the TIC in the One Stop Shop. This is partly because the OSS is very busy and partly because they do not see the two functions as compatible. It was initially reported to me by many people that this decision had been taken and was final.

There was clearly some mis-communication somewhere along the line about this. However, I have been assured that no decision will be final until senior officers, Cabinet members and local councillors have been properly consulted.

I am very glad to report that discussions between Cornwall Council and Launceston Town Council are still on-going. I've had a couple of apologies from senior people at the Council about the inaccurate information that has been given out and I'm happy to accept those apologies.

In the meantime, the Town Council is still talking to Cornwall Council about working in partnership to deliver a decent tourist information centre for our town and the surrounding area. My guess is that this will not be from the current premises.

If Cornwall Council is to sever its links with the TIC then it would be a great shame for local businesses, but I hope that the Town Council or another group could pick up the slack. However, any decision along these lines by Cornwall Council will be more evidence of a 'one size fits all' approach - the sort of thing that we were promised would not be happening.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Cornwall Council to close Launceston Tourist Information Centre

Cornwall Council has taken the decision to close the Tourist Information Centre in Launceston. This is a terrible decision which will massively affect a large number of local businesses and mean a worse experience for many visitors to our town.

The Tourist Information Centre (TIC) shares the One Stop Shop premises in Market House Arcade. I've been in the TIC many times and have seen many visitors getting information about our town, planning days out and booking accommodation. All of this work will be hit if the Council's plans go ahead.

The difficulty apparently comes because of the way the TIC is currently managed. It is currently funded and managed via the Customer Services wing of the Council and is the only TIC run in this way. Others are either private, run by town councils or by Visit Cornwall.

Customer Services were in discussion with Launceston Town Council about taking over some or all of the running of the TIC in its current location. But whilst the discussions were still going on, it appears that the decision was taken nonetheless to end Cornwall Council's involvement with the service.

I've asked a number of urgent questions of the Council about this decision - specifically:

  • who took the decision
  • what discussions did they have with Visit Cornwall or anyone who deals with tourism within the Council
  • why they did not inform the local Cornwall Councillors
  • what consultation has been held with local businesses who help to fund the TIC as it currently is

I've also asked them to guarantee that this is not a prelude to a decision to close the One Stop Shop and withdraw services from the town altogether.

Certainly one of those kept in the dark was Carolyn Rule, the Cabinet Member with responsibility for tourism who assured me a month ago that there were no plans to abandon Launceston's TIC - although the Council would be looking for partners to help them with the operation. Carolyn has told me this afternoon that she knew nothing about the decision until I told her.

Assuming that the One Stop Shop is kept open, this doesn't appear to be a decision about money. Although not huge, the TIC does have some income and, for a number of reasons, simply taking away the TIC from the One Stop Shop is likely to actually cost the Council more, rather than less.

Launceston is not the biggest tourist centre in Cornwall, but we do have lots of visitors and we have been working locally to do more to promote our town and its attractions. Why the Council seems to think that it is ok to simply abandon us at this time is beyond me.

UPDATE - I've slightly modified the original version of this post based on replies I've had from the Council to some of my questions.

Why don't more charities use iphone apps?

Stephen Tall recently posted about using his ipad for business and linked to Fundraising.co.uk which discusses the use of apps by charities. The site shows just how few UK charities have an iphone (or ipad) app. How come the fundraising sector has not yet embraced this form of technology?

One answer might be the rules set by Apple. They apparently don't allow 'touch to donate' apps which might be one of the easiest ways to give. In other words, you cannot create an app which is free to download but which then allows the user to donate at the touch of the screen. This put paid to the idea of BullyingUK who wanted to include a donation function on their app but were frustrated by Apple's policy of not allowing nonprofit/charity donation facilities on apps.

But with the plethora of text to donate fundraising schemes, surely it would be possible to design an app whose very sale creates a profit for the charity. Although no charity has yet produced an entirely virtuous app - where the user pays for an app which is essentially worthless and the money goes to the fundraisers - there are a couple who have produced games including the Hoopathon, a virtual Hula Hoops Hoopathon game which cost £1.79 to download with profits going to Sport Relief.

Other charities have taken a different tack - producing a free app with service information but asking for a donation by text or online if the user wishes to contribute. WaterAid's ToiletFinder UK is one example, helping you locate a public toilet in the UK.

Other apps support events like The Marie Curie Blooming Great Tea Party or Movember.

It can hardly be said that foreign charities are that much further ahead either.

To me this looks like an opportunity that is being missed.

St Thomas footbridge update

I've had an update from Cornwall Council officers about the footbridge between Riverside and Westbridge Road. As I posted yesterday, the bridge is closed because of damage which the engineers says is likely to be due to water erosion. The works to repair it will start next Monday and should be completed in time to re-open next Wednesday.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Concerns over lack of accountability for Cornwall LEP

Last Tuesday, Cornwall Council unanimously agreed a Lib Dem motion in favour of a Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership where we would invite the Council of the Isles of Scilly to take part (but couldn't take their involvement for granted). We also made clear the need for genuine democratic accountability.

Since then, it appears that some people from the business community have been trying to take control of the project and the Council's own website appears to take the involvement of the Isles of Scilly for granted.

So I have written to Council Leader Alec Robertson asking him to make sure that the preparations for the LEP follow the spirit as well as the letter of what we agreed at Full Council.

In my letter, I say:

The Council's consultation on the LEP seems to take the involvement of the Council of the Isles of Scilly for granted. The Council was quite specific in agreeing that this involvement cannot be taken for granted. The Council of the Isles of Scilly should be invited to participate and we need to make the case to them for their participation. Could you confirm what approach has been made to the CIoS and what response has been received? If no approach has yet been made, could you ensure that the statements being made by Cornwall Council are adjusted to reflect this?

We stressed in our motion that the LEP should be a partnership between the Council(s) and business. It would be entirely wrong, in our view, for the LEP to be dominated by business or for those who do not have democratic accountability nonetheless to have a veto on the work of the LEP. Could you assure me that Cornwall Council, whilst continuing to forge strong partnerships with business to make the LEP as resilient as possible, is preparing a bid that retains democratic accountability at its heart?
A Cornwall (and Isles of Scilly) LEP can be a strong voice for enterprise and development in Cornwall, but it must be accountable to the people of Cornwall.

Major road closures in Launceston in October and November

Residents may have noticed that all sorts of markings have appeared all over a number of roads in Launceston. These are surveyors marks which have been made in order to plan for resurfacing of the roads.

I've just received a road closure notice which sets out when some of the works will be done. The roads affected will be Wooda Road, Dockacre Road and the continuation of that road past the junction with Ridgegrove Hill almost to the Prout's Corner junction. In total, the works will take around 5 weeks starting from 18th October.

There will be a diversion route signposted which will take drivers via the Link Road.

A number of other roads are also scheduled for resurfacing works. I am told that these are likely to take place after Christmas.

Closure of St Thomas footbridge

The famous footbridge across the Kensey between Riverside and Westbridge Road has been closed as Cornwall Council staff have found that it is partly collapsing.

The works to repair the bridge are scheduled to start next Monday.

This bridge is one of Launceston's more famous landmarks. I hope that it will back safely open as soon as possible.

The photos are kindly supplied by Cornwall Council.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Is Cornwall a 'vanity attachment'?

Royal Mail is planning to drop the names of counties from their address database. They say that the names are not needed for delivering mail and deleting the line will save money and avoid the use of out of date names such as Dyfed and North Humberside.

That might seem like a perfectly sensible proposal, but the chair of the board that advises Royal Mail on running the database, Ian Beesley, went on to refer to the counties as 'a kind of vanity attachment'.

Many people in Cornwall, and elsewhere, will object strongly to the idea that their county (or Duchy in Cornwall's case) is merely a matter of vanity. By using such language to refer to an otherwise sound enough proposal, Mr Beesley will simply be inviting opprobrium.