Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Cornwall Cabinet debates cuts

This morning, the Council's Cabinet agreed a set of proposed cuts that will see most of our libraries and One Stop Shops close, an end to 27 rural bus services and more than £4 million cut from the budget that helps the most vulnerable adults.

The budget meeting went roughly as expected in that councillors from across the political spectrum lined up to criticise the cuts but the Cabinet voted them through in any case. It is now up to backbench and opposition councillors to secure the 62 votes that any changes need in order to reverse individual cuts.

Every speaker at today's meeting accepted the need for savings to be made. Some questioned why they had to be made as quickly as is being proposed but no-one took the Ed Balls line of sticking their head in the sand and hoping that a magic pot of money would save us from any need to cut our spending.

The debate came over where the cuts need to be made. As is currently proposed the majority will come from adult care, libraries, leisure and rural and school transport. Different councillors sought to suggest other areas that could be cut instead but each of these was batted away by the administration which nodded through the cuts package unanimously.

There were a couple of interesting points however. Cllr Joan Symons, the Cabinet member for Leisure, has agreed to meet with representatives of the Camelford Leisure Centre Campaign. Apparently, the reason she refused to attend the meeting last night was because she feared for her personal safety. I think this was a ridiculous excuse. Councillors from the scrutiny committees held a series of public meetings across Cornwall and, whilst they faced some tough questions, there was never any thought of violence. When I got the chance to have my say I made it clear that I thought Joan had bottled her responsibilities. I am very glad that she has now changed her mind - even if her language about the prospects for saving the leisure centre is still not as hopeful as it might be.

I also asked about the survey work that was undertaken asking the public where they thought the cuts should fall. I pointed out that the Leader had claimed that leisure was top of the public's list - whereas it is actually at number ten and four of the areas above it have no cuts planned. Cllr Robertson stuck to his guns in claiming that leisure was still 'up there' and he refused to be drawn on the lack of cuts to other areas.

Finally, I said that the Council should be looking at its capital programme for cuts as well. It is all very well proclaiming the need to build for the future, but we also need to build strong communities and if we destroy these communities by taking away their libraries, leisure centres and one stop shops then there will be little point in new capital buildings.

After the meeting I took part in a panel discussion for Radio Cornwall with Conservative Steve Double, Indy Group Leader Neil Burden, MK's Andrew Long and Indy Andrew Wallis.

This afternoon I had a meeting with my Lib Dem shadow cabinet colleagues to agree our plan of action to reverse the unacceptable cuts to frontline services.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Save Camelford Leisure Centre meeting

This evening I, along with about 100 others, attended a meeting organised by the Save Camelford Leisure Centre group at the council offices in the town. The meeting was incredibly positive in its outlook with speaker after speaker making offers of support or ideas for the campaign.

Among those present were local councillors Keith Goodenough, Glenton Brown and John Lugg as well as myself and Liskeard councillor Jay Schofield who grew up in Camelford. Every single one of us pledged to vote in favour of saving Camelford Leisure Centre from the chop. A message of support was also sent by local MP Dan Rogerson who was working in Westminster.

The key person who was not present was Cabinet Member for Leisure Joan Symons. I thought this was a tactical mistake by Joan. Apparently she has said that she will meet the campaign group, but only after the decision to close the centre has passed through Cabinet and the scrutiny committee. As one speaker pointed out, it appears that Cornwall Council is determined to take a decision when they have as little information as possible.

Many speakers noted the fact that the children from many primary schools will lose their ability to learn to swim if the pool closes. The swimming club, which has 50 young members swimming twice a week, will also have to end. The governing body of Sir James Smith's school sent a message asking why Cllr Symons is refusing to meet them to discuss the proposal. We even had one of the local GPs talking about the potential loss of exercise prescriptions that will come from losing the pool and a local Police Officer saying that the pool helped give young people something positive to do.

The fight now moves to County Hall and the first discussion of the proposal at the Budget Cabinet meeting tomorrow. Although they have been refused the right to speak of ask questions, the Camelford campaign group will be there to lobby councillors. One of those making the trip will be campaign leader Rev Jim Benson-Evans who spoke to me after the meeting tonight.

Congratulations to Anthea McIntyre MEP

The Lisbon Treaty included a provision that the UK would get one extra member of the European Parliament and the Electoral Commission has just issued a report which states that this MEP will be assigned to the West Midland region.

I've just done a quick calculation and found that, if there were seven MEPs to be elected in the West Midlands rather than 6 then it would be the Conservatives who would win the seat.

The Conservatives won two MEPs in the West Midlands in 2009 and the third person on their list is Anthea Elizabeth Joy McIntyre. Presumably (unless she declines to position of the local Conservative nominating officer declines to name her to the post), she will become the new MEP.

(Note: Results of the 2009 Euro elections are here and the list of nominated candidates for each party is here.)

Monday, 25 October 2010

The cuts agenda

Cornwall Council's ruling Conservative/Independent administration today published their emergency budget proposals in response to the cuts that are being imposed by central government.

The first thing to say is that it is quite clear that cuts have to be made. The amount of money Cornwall will be receiving from the government in the form of grant will be being cut by something around 26.5% over the next four years (we will only find out for certain in early December). The administration has been planning on the basis of 30% cuts and I think they were wise to do so. But in the first (or a number) of disagreements with them, I believe that Cornwall should take advantage of the fact that the cuts appear to be less than first thought.

The 30% target demands that we make about £10.5 million of front line service cuts as well as lots of 'behind the scenes' cuts (see below). If the true grant cut is around 26.5% then Cornwall is spared about £8 million of these cuts. Yet the administration want to cut the full £10.5 million anyway. In my opinion, we should not be cutting front line services if we do not have to.

The vast majority of the proposed savings stem from what are described as being management actions. In other words, they are supposed not to be cuts affecting front line services.

I think that the majority of these changes, if not good news, at least live up to the billing of not affecting front line services. There are some pretty hard choices however. There is a figure of just over £7 million to be saved through cutting pay to our staff. Whilst a few highly paid chief officers grab a lot of the headlines, the majority of council staff are not highly paid. Any sort of negotiations with them over pay need to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. I personally think that we have no option but to enter such talks with staff, but I regret this necessity.

Other proposals include the stock transfer of council housing - over which tenants will have a say - and the proposal to move other services into 'Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMOs)' in order to make savings.

However there are some proposed management changes which will definitely hit services. Among these is an apparent plan to 'rationalise' the localism service. It is true to say that the community networks are a bit of a marmite feature among councillors - you either love them or hate them. Those councillors who tend to value the service more are those from further away from Truro and from the more rural areas. I certainly value the work that out local team do immensely. The plan appears to be to centralise the support we get. I think this would be a big mistake and have put forward an alternative course of action.

It's when it comes to the front line service cuts that the proposals become most contentious.

As predicted on Radio Cornwall, Adult Care will be asked to suffer the biggest single cut - of £4 million. Although this department has the biggest budget in the council, it is also the area with the greatest pressure through increasing numbers of clients.

Also foremost in the firing line is the libraries service. It is predicted that there will be two rounds of branch closures over the next two years to leave just a handful of remaining branches. The remaining few libraries will be combined with One Stop Shops whose numbers will also fall.

It is quite likely that Launceston - as with most of the rest of North and East Cornwall - will lose both its library and One Stop Shop. Although our leisure centre looks to be secure, the cuts would constitute a horrific abandonment of one of the major towns in North Cornwall.

One idea that seems to be being floated is that assets might be transferred to town and parish councils alongside subsidised services. As it was explained to me:

'A particular car park might have an income of about £40,000 per year and a library might cost £45,000 to run. If both were transferred to the town council then Cornwall Council could show a net cut of £5,000 on its balance sheet. If the town council could deliver the library service for £40,000 a year then it would be paid for by the car park income and so everyone would be a winner.'

Except that this relies on the town council being able to deliver a library service cheaper than Cornwall Council is able to do - something that I just cannot see is possible. Cornwall Council is planning to save lots of money through shared library procurement and other economies of scale which are not an option for town councils. Whilst the sort of service transfer might be possible with some services which are already being delivered by town councils (such as grass cutting), it is not an option for keeping libraries or leisure centres open.

The thing is that the libraries service is not an expensive one. The plan to close a double figure number of branches will save less than three quarters of a million pounds.

Another area which will suffer big cuts is public transport. Whilst the council has only just finished its public consultation on the latest local transport plan - in which they propose a vast network of community buses - they are planning on withdrawing their subsidy for community buses. There will be 27 routes which will see the subsidy taken away and the council predicts that the services which carry 460,000 people a year will be withdrawn as a result.

And, even more astonishingly, the council proposes to withdraw the funding it gives to enable 16-19 year olds to get to college. The claim is that colleges have not suffered as badly as councils and so they will happily step into the breach (as Truro College does for a few students) and pay the subsidy themselves 'because they need the student numbers'. Except that I just cannot see it working that way, particularly for students from further away who will cost more to transport. My area of Launceston has the lowest take-up of 16-19 education in Cornwall. Removing this subsidy is not going to help more young people from this area stay in education.

The report also helpfully lists some of the ideas that were considered but rejected by the Cabinet. One of these is the Council's presence at the Royal Cornwall Show. I think that it is good for Cornwall Council to be at the show, but I strongly question whether this three day event is more important than saving a well used library from closure.

It's too early to suggest exactly what should be cut instead of those services being proposed by the administration. The Liberal Democrat councillors have asked officers for lots of figures to help us come up with alternatives. We will aim to come up with costed alternatives to save the money that has to be saved but sparing our valuable front line services from closure.

So what did Cornwall say about cuts?

In an interview with Radio Cornwall today, Council Leader Alec Robertson seemed to rely heavily on what the people of Cornwall said when asked about potential cuts. But is this what Cornwall really thinks and is Cornwall Council really acting on what they said?

To find out what people in Cornwall think, the Council opened up a page on their website and held four public events around Cornwall. They also issued a questionnaire to ask people which they felt were the most 'expendable' services - but this equated Adult Care (more than £100 million per year) with Cornish Studies (about £100,000 per year).

As a result, we don't know whether the survey was accurate or not (but hey, when you are planning to make £110 million of cuts, why bother trying to make sure you know exactly what people think). But let's just assume it was. As Cllr Robertson said:

"Cornwall has told us that we must prioritise vulnerable people and children, and that leisure services where there are subsidies will have to be reduced."

He's right about adult care and young people, but actually respondents nominated Newquay Airport, licensing, economic development, cultural services, conservation and street lighting (among others) above leisure services when it came to cuts. So what has Cornwall Council decided to do in the budget?

The biggest front line service cut is proposed to be Adult Care (ie vulnerable people) and other top targets for cuts will be young people who need financial help traveling to college.

Whilst there are some cuts from virtually every department, there appears to be nothing cut from economic development, conservation or street lighting despite these being more popular cut targets than leisure.

So it appears that the consultation with the public is only being quoted when it suits the pre-determined cuts agenda.

Incidentally, this morning Cllr Robertson and Council Chief Executive Kevin Lavery held a press conference to announce the proposed budget. Lib Dem Group Leader Doris Ansari went along to hear what they had to say, only to be thrown out of the event because apparently:

"Press conferences are private meetings"

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Clegg smoking - it's not news

I'm not entirely sure how anyone thinks that Nick Clegg's smoking is big news - especially in the week of the spending review.

To be honest, the fact that Nick smokes isn't news at all and has been discussed by him on a number of occasions. We were chatting about smoking during an off moment in the election campaign he asked how many I smoked. When I said about 20 a day he took that to be a very high number and told me that he smoked two or three in the evening with a glass of wine.

I know that, at one point after he was elected leader, he was trying to give up and I was forbidden to smoke anywhere near him. I'm not saying it was anything to do with me, but he started again fairly soon after.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Tim Farron for President

I'd already sent my ballot paper for Lib Dem President back before I saw this. But Tim's campaign video is absolutely spot on.

Why Ken Livingstone's support for non-Labour candidate could actually have been for the good of the Labour Party

In Thursday's mayoral election in Tower Hamlets, Labour managed to lose to the former (Labour) leader of the Council who had been de-selected as their own candidate. The on-going row surrounds Ken Livingstone and the fact that he appeared on the campaign for the victorious independent candidate, apparently against party rules.

I would suggest that, far from being against the wishes of the Labour HQ, Livingstone's appearance could actually have been designed to build bridges between Labour and their renegade former candidate.

Given the pickle that Labour had managed to get themselves into, there is no doubt that the party wanted one of two outcomes to the mayoral election:

  • either a victory for the official Labour candidate Helel Abbas, or
  • to regain some degree of control over the renegade Lutfur Rehman and to stop him falling further under the influence of the remnants of Respect.

Who better to reach out to Rehman than the man who went through exactly the same drama himself - Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone's intervention will, of course, have swayed a few votes in the campaign. But it came late enough in the process that Labour will already have known that they were going to lose the mayoralty. Would they have lost it on first preferences? Probably not. But, as they say, a loss is a loss.

So with their campaign already down the tubes, the prospect of Rehman winning would have scared Labour witless. After all, the party out-performed expectations in London in both the General Election and council elections in May and seemed to have seen off George Galloway and Respect for good. Hence the Livingstone strategy.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Scrapping the Anglian Princess

It's surely more than a little ironic that, in the week of the Comprehensive Spending Review and Strategic Defence Review, the Royal Navy's most expensive submarine (not being scrapped) should run aground and have to be pulled clear by an MCA ocean-going tug (on the scrap list).

There are four of these MCA tugs based around the coast. One, the Anglian Princess, is based in Falmouth. I saw the ship when I went out with the Fire Service's boat a few months ago.

The purpose of the tugs (other than to rescue stranded billion pound submarines) is to protect the UK's major shipping lanes and to assist vessels in distress. When a ship at sea faces trouble, the captain is often reluctant to declare an emergency because of the huge salvage fees that can become payable to private tug operators who rescue them. So they tend to plough on regardless and can become a massive danger to shipping as a result. What would happen if a tanker captain found himself in difficulty but was too scared of salvage fees to declare an emergency. The chances of that tanker crashing into the Cornish coast may not be that high, but the consequences would be cataclysmic.

And so the MCA tugs are there to help those who ask for it but also to be used when vessels are in trouble but refuse to declare an emergency. They are also used to ferry firefighters and their equipment to vessels ablaze out to sea.

Without the Anglian Princess, the South West Approaches are going to be a bit more risky.

North Cornwall council housing set for transfer?

This evening we had a Launceston community network meeting in South Petherwin. This was the best attended meeting of the network so far with ten different parishes represented.

The subject of the meeting was housing, and in particular affordable housing. As ever with these meetings, we wanted the top people at the Council to answer questions and hear the views of local people and so we had Housing Cabinet Member Mark Kaczmarek and Affordable Housing Manager Louise Dwelly present.

Mark explained the approach being taken by the Council and, in particular, the affordable housing policy which is currently out for consultation. The key message is that the Council needs to find places for more affordable homes but is keen to work closely with parishes and town councils to find the places that are right for local communities rather than imposing anything on them.

One of the other proposals that Mark announced was for a housing stock transfer for North Cornwall's council housing. NCDC, together with Caradon, did not transfer its housing stock before it was abolished. Mark is now seeking to do so in order to save the Council money. Clearly this will be an issue which needs proper consultation with tenants who will want to know what this will mean for rents, repairs and their other rights.

It was very good of Mark and Louise to come to the meeting and to answer all the questions as they did.

The next network meeting will be at Launceston Town Hall on 20th January and will be a 'State of Launceston' meeting when every subject is up for discussion.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Cabinet Members cannot ignore the impact of their decisions

I have been told that Cornwall Council Cabinet Member for Leisure, Joan Symons, is refusing to meet with Camelford residents to hear their concerns about the proposal to stop funding their leisure centre.

I have written to Joan to ask her to reconsider that decision:

Dear Joan
I understand from Camelford residents that you have declined an invitation to meet with them to hear their concerns about Cornwall Council's plans to stop funding their leisure centre.
I hope that you will change your mind and agree to attend a meeting. I think it is vital that Cornwall Council does not appear to exist in ivory towers in Truro but only takes tough decisions after considering all the options and hearing from the people who will be affected by them. As the portfolio holder for leisure, it will be you who will be proposing this cut and I think it would be wrong for any councillor to be perceived to be hiding behind officers in difficult cases such as this.

With best wishes

Alex

I don't pretend that the task facing the Cabinet is easy. There are clearly going to have to be budget cuts of a very great magnitude. But it is inevitable that local residents, such as those in Camelford, will be very concerned about the prospect of losing their local facilities. They deserve to be heard by those proposing the closures.

I hope Joan Symons changes her mind.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Anti-skid surfaces on Dutson Road - update

I have asked council officers again about the failed anti-skid surfacing on Dutson Road. The surfacing was installed by a contractor but is filing to stick to the road and is coming away in large sheets.

Officers accept that the surfacing has failed and they have asked the contractor to take action but so far this hasn't happened because of wet weather. I understand that the contractor has now been told that they won't be getting any more work from the council until they deal with this problem.

Residents Parking - Western Road

Residents in Western Road have approached the Council to ask about introducing a residents parking scheme in their area.

The current parking arrangements only allow drivers to park for a maximum of an hour during the daytime with no return within 3 hours. The proposal is for a system of permits which would allow local residents and their visitors to park in the area at any time. Non-residents would continue to be able to park for up to an hour.

Council officers are currently looking at the request.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Camelford decision not yet taken (yeah, right)

So what is going on with Camelford Leisure Centre?

A senior council officer last week told the staff at the leisure centre that they should be looking for other jobs because the centre will be closing.

That was directly contradicted by Cabinet member Joan Symons at today's Full Council meeting. She was absolutely firm in saying that no decision has yet been made.

I am sure that the formal redundancy notices have not yet been served on staff, but nonetheless the decision has been made to abandon Camelford Leisure Centre. This decision is known across the leisure services sector in Cornwall. I do not believe that there is any prospect that the Cabinet will change its mind on this matter. At least the senior officer was being open and honest with staff.

The people of Camelford have already started to campaign against the move on Facebook and through the press but (as Graham Smith points out) they have been told that they will not be able to bring their case to the Cabinet meeting next week. If Cornwall Council was following the procedure that they pledged then this proposed cut could be considered alongside all the other budget changes. There could be a proper debate about priorities and the people of Camelford and their supporters could have their say. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Labour turn Votes at 16 into a cheap stunt

Ten years ago, whilst working for the Electoral Reform Society, I founded the Votes at 16 Campaign. This involved bringing together more than 30 different organisations ranging from childrens' charities to political parties and we had many thousands of individual supporters signed up.

Regrettably, the Labour Government stalled on the issue. Whilst there were a large number of individual Labour MPs who backed us (among the Labour supporters was David Milliband) as well as Lib Dems, nationalists and a couple of Tories, they were never enough of a force to make this any sort of priority within the Government. Tony Blair opposed change on the issue and Gordon Brown, a supporter, promised change this year, next year, sometime never.

Now, apparently cynically, Labour has swung behind the Votes at 16 cause.

In today's debate on the voting reform bill, Labour moved an amendment to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the referendum on changing the voting system. This wouldn't change the age at which people could vote in elections themselves, but was just yet another attempt by Labour to disrupt the referendum on voting reform (which they supposedly support).

Of course I'm disappointed that the Lib Dems didn't vote for the measure, but I understand the reasoning in this instance. If we are to have change then it should be proper change for every election.

If Labour backs change now, why not propose a real amendment to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in all elections rather than just trying to disrupt this referendum.

Taff out for eight weeks

It seems that every time the Cornish All Blacks think they are on the up, they get knocked back down again. Saturday saw the great news that they had at last wiped out the points penalty that they started the season with. Today came the news that wing Ben Turner will be out for at least eight weeks with a ruptured spleen.

Ben left the field at half time on Saturday having taken a heavy collision and today came the news of the extent of his injury.

Camelford Leisure Centre set for the chop

The first (of many) cuts by Cornwall Council has leaked out. Staff at Camelford Leisure Centre have been told that the facility is to be closed by Cornwall Council as part of efforts to save money.

This is bad news for three reasons:

  • It deprives the community of Camelford of a significant local facility;
  • It comes at a time when the whole future of Cornwall's leisure service is under review because of the amalgamation of the six former district council leisure services into one. Surely the right time to decide whether (or not) to close a centre would be when this review has concluded.
  • It gives the lie to the idea being put out by the Council that nothing is yet decided about the budget. Last week the scrutiny committee toured Cornwall listening to residents' ideas about the budget. Was this exercise just a charade?

No doubt more information about Cornwall Council service cuts will emerge over the next few days. I hope that the decisions are not as disastrous as this one.

UPDATE - Join the Facebook group to Save Camelford Leisure Centre here.

All Black cheer - we've got no points!

Most teams probably wouldn't be cheering if they were sitting on nil points and at the bottom of the league after seven games. But for the Cornish All Blacks that is reason for a swift half.

We started the season on -20 points having been penalised for going into administration during the off-season. After three wins, a draw and three losses, that deficit has been wiped off and the season proper can begin.

Full marks go to the players for their efforts in achieving this. With the prospect of promotion all but extinguished before the season began, it would have been easy for them to drop their heads and not be bothered too much. As it is, none have left and all have been playing their hearts out for the cause.

Saturday's game at Cinderford was a toughie. The Forest of Dean side can be quite, ahem, physical and their scrum was never going to pushed around as a couple of opponents have already this season.

The Cornish All Blacks were happy to spread the play out wide and scored four tries as a result with two for winger Richard Bright and two for full back Mal Roberts. There was no try for top scorer Ryan Westren but his partnership with Pale Nanu is still ferocious and Westy should really have had a score under the posts but he was brought down just short of the line by a speedy winger.

The next mission for the Blacks is to get off the bottom of the table. Redruth currently sit on 7 points, so the task will take a minimum of two weeks. After that, who knows? Without the penalty, Launceston would be sitting in sixth place in the league, so the form is there. Let's just hope that the results take us to our rightful position sooner rather than later.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Cuts Roadshow hits Bude

Cornwall Council's Cuts Roadshow made it to Bude this evening for the last of their planned engagement sessions with the public.

The event was run by Finance Director Michael Crich and Corporate Resources Scrutiny Chairman John Keeling. Many thanks to them and to the other scrutiny members who came along. It's a pity that none of the Cabinet members who are making the cuts came along, but we were told that the points raised would be fed back to them.

The worry with these events is whether they are mere window dressing or whether the views expressed here or at the previous three events (or via the website) will actually have a hope of changing the detail of what actually happens. The Conservative and Independent groups have already had a briefing on the likely cuts package - which does not bode well - but we were assured that nothing has yet been finalised.

What is certain is that both John and Michael ran a decent event and they listened to the views expressed without feeling the need to respond in detail or refute every point made. They weren't on the defensive.

The audience was given scope to raise any issue they wanted. The points I noted included:

  • Don't sell land simply to raise short term cash
  • Don't raise car park prices too high
  • Consider a sale and leaseback deal for council buildings
  • Don't pay for the extension of Tate St Ives
  • Don't cut back care for the elderly
  • Maintain Community Networks
  • Cut back on Community Networks
  • Reduce the size of the planning department so more applications for wind turbines are let through
  • Raise money through enterprise
  • Reduce every budget by the same percentage so that cheaper services are not cut out of existence
  • Don't cut leisure facilities, particularly Camelford swimming pool
  • Cut the capital programme, not front line services
  • Cut Newquay Airport
  • Raise Council Tax for second homes
  • and so on

The draft budget proposals are due to be published at some point next week.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Stadium for Cornwall

The long running saga of the Stadium for Cornwall has take a couple of new twists.

The first is that I have been given permission to publish the first report of the external consultants which gives an idea of where the site for the stadium should be. Of course this isn't the full report and it was initially marked as confidential but I have asked for clearance to publish it and this has now been given. The report is attached at the bottom of this post.

While this report says that Truro or Threemilestone is the favoured venue we have also heard from Cabinet member Carolyn Rule that there is unlikely to be any public money forthcoming for the Stadium.

At the same time, I now understand that there is a big push to try to site a stadium in mid-Cornwall, possibly somewhere near Victoria on the A30. If it were to be there, the site could possibly play host to the Pirates (but presumably not Truro City) and also a park and ride facility for Newquay. We have also heard pushes recently for a speedway facility in the St Austell area and mid Cornwall is the site of Cornwall's most successful athletics club. Could someone combine all of these and also add in the occasional attractions of concerts and festivals? If it were to happen, presumably it would not involve Council funding?

My objection to the Stadium plan has always been to any public money being roped into the plan. It seems as though Cornwall Council are now talking sense on this project. If private developers want to come forward with plans for a stadium in an area which the planners are happy with then they deserve our (non-financial) best wishes.

The first consultants report on the siting for a stadium for Cornwall:

Site Assessment Summary Report FINAL Distributed v2

Pay cuts at the top of Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council Chief Executive Kevin Lavery has today announced that he is going to take an effective 5% pay cut from January 1st.

Other corporate directors - including Communities Director Gill Steward - will also not be drawing down their full salary.

The technical language - "not drawing down their full salary" - is crucial here. It means that the pay cut is entirely voluntary and the officer can choose at any time to move back to their full salary. It is also not yet clear which other officers will be following suit, but I am told that the matter was discussed by the Corporate Leadership Team.

But nonetheless this move is very welcome and is something I have been calling for for since June. I wonder if the Cabinet will be following suit?

Next Generation Broadband - access will NOT be dependent on business buy in

No sooner had Cornwall Council Cabinet member Carolyn Rule sent me a statement saying definitively that residential access to Next Generation Broadband will be dependent on business take-up do I get an email from an officer stating the exact opposite.

Nigel Ashcroft, the Director of NGB for Cornwall (and therefore the person who should know) tells me:

"Households will be upgraded at the same time as businesses and are not dependant (sic) on business take up"

I'm very grateful that in this case that it appears Cllr Rule doesn't know what she is talking about.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Next Generation Broadband - access will be dependent on business buy in

I complained a while ago that, whilst the media were given a lavish launch party for the Next Generation Broadband scheme, Cornwall Councillors were given no information whatsoever. A week after the launch, the Council finally got round to sending a briefing note to councillors.

I've also asked a number of other questions and there is good news and bad news from Cabinet Member Cllr Carolyn Rule.

The good news is that:

"the roll out will start in the East"

The less good news is that:

"it will be dependent on business take up as this is funded from convergence"

So, contrary to what the glossy publicity material would have us believe, it appears that if local businesses don't buy into the service then residential properties will miss out. What is less clear is what the situation will be for residents who don't live near any business premises. The launch material appears to imply that they will still get services.

Transparency and Openness - Special Edition

Following on from my last post about the refusal by the Leader of Cornwall Council to tell ordinary councillors what Cornwall council is planning to do with taxpayers' money, my attention is drawn to two more examples of the famed 'transparency and openness' of Alec Robertson and Jim Currie:

First up is the decision (details on Jeremy Rowe's blog) not to webcast the Strategic Planning Committee meeting tomorrow which will be discussing no fewer than THREE supermarket planning applications in Wadebridge.

It is bad enough that this meeting is being held in Truro, rather than in Wadebridge where the affected people live. But it is being held in the Council Chamber which has fixed webcasting cameras and all the systems ready to go to allow people from Wadebridge to watch proceedings. And yet Cornwall Council is refusing to webcast the meeting.

The second example comes from Cllr Jim Currie who appeared on last night's Spotlight programme to discuss cuts. Pressed to say which services were most in danger, Cllr Currie repeated the mantra that 'nothing is safe'. Pressed, he admitted that there is 'a list of options'. Asked what the options were he said:

"I can't tell you"

The interviewer then suggested that the people of Cornwall need to have some idea of the services they currently receive which the council are thinking of targeting. Why couldn't Cllr Currie give some idea of the list of options?

"Because we don't conduct our discussions in public"
Genius.

BIG Cornwall - We tell the press, you have to wait.

At today's Cabinet meeting, I asked the Leader to explain what on earth 'BIG Cornwall' means. As readers will know, this term has been bandied about by the Leader and Chief Executive a lot recently without any real explanation being given as to what it means for services or for local communities.

And so when the Cabinet discussed the Cornwall Strategy 2010-2030, they also apparently endorsed the BIG Cornwall scheme.

Unfortunately, there was no real clarity in the answer from the Leader. Apart from telling me that there had been plenty of press releases on the subject, he refused to say any more. Instead, councillors will have to wait until the budget when, apparently, all will be revealed.

So Big Cornwall joins Active Partnering and the Next Generation Broadband project as matters where the Council leadership believes that it is right to tell the press but wrong to tell councillors.

On Twitter, several people suggested that BIG Cornwall might mean that Cllr Robertson is planning to take over Devon. Surely not?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Localism gone missing

Over the past few months, my colleague Jeremy Rowe has made a habit of questioning Cornwall's Cabinet Member for Localism, Lance Kennedy, about his reports to Council.

You see, although Lance is in charge of localism (as well as community safety), he limits his reports to just a single topic. For at least the last four meetings, the only issue mentioned has been Newquay Safe - an excellent project, but far from being the only subject under the localism agenda.

Where is the discussion of the community networks, the powers being devolved to town and parish councils or active partnering - the latest nebulous concept that Cornwall Council seems so keen on promoting?

So for next week's council meeting, Lance has had a change of tack. There is no mention of localism whatsoever in his report.

Another debate about allowances!

The agenda for next week's full council meeting has just been published and there is to be yet another debate on the subject of councillors' allowances.

This is all because the Conservative led administration refused to accept the Lib Dem motion to freeze allowances for the four year duration of our term of office. Instead, they commissioned a £10,000 report which they rejected and promised to consider the issue again in a year's time. Now the Council needs to decide whether or not it wants to commission a new independent report.

I really cannot see how, with cuts due to every council department, the Council could do anything other than freeze allowances for another 12 months. But because of the Conservative' intransigence a year ago, we are stuck with debating the issue for the fifth time since we were elected just 17 months ago.

Parky sticks it to Richard Bacon



It should, of course, come as no surprise that Sir Michael Parkinson swept the floor with useless Radio 5 host Richard Bacon this afternoon, but it was a masterclass in contempt which deserves to be heard again and again. (Listen again is available here for then next 7 days.)

As a magazine slot interviewer Bacon is truly terrible. Last week the Nobel Prize for Physics was won by two scientists who invented the two-dimensional material graphene. Nothing so exemplifies Richard Bacon so much as that material. He never seems to get more than a single molecule of depth from his interviewees and his dictionary of banalities is limitless.

As a sort of parody, the HELP! slot that he runs once a week might even be quite funny. But apparently it's mean to to be taken seriously and thus he is turning himself into a caricature of Alan Partridge. But without the self-awareness.

Today Bacon got his comeuppance when he interviewed Sir Michael Parkinson. Parky isn't my favourite chat show host in the world - his adoration of Billy Connolly is a little OTT - but he has forgotten more about the skill of interviewing than Bacon will ever know.

Somehow, the pair got into an argument about the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross incident. Bacon managed to get himself into a position where he was trying to defend Brand's actions without ever saying so. He was stuck between two stools of siding with what he knew was right and trying to retain his self-opinion as an edgy and 'dahn with the kids' interviewer. He manages to get his age into his programme more often than Nick Clegg mentions Sheffield - and that is saying something. The contempt with which Parky treated him was a delight.

After one break for travel, Bacon announced to a completely disbelieving audience that he was enjoying the interview. I would guess about as much as a prostate exam. Parky's response ('So am I') was as cruel as it was funny.

After that there was nowhere for Bacon to go, so he just kept digging. Spying an apparent gap in the Parky CV he asked whether he was in a bit of a rough patch after 1982 when his show finished on BBC1. "No, I was busy launching TV-AM," replied Parky with the tone of a schoolmaster scolding a pupil for not doing their homework - which is apt.

So was it just Parky that put him off his stride? Apparently not. Later in the programme, Bacon discussed the state of British comedy following the Quentin Letts article bemoaning the modern TV comedians. Also appearing was the former producer of Last of the Summer Wine who said that the casual racism of 1970s comedy was fine because the shows were funny. There was an open goal for Bacon to regain his standing and self-worth, but he fluffed it. Where Parky would have laid bare the outrageous nature of the statement, Bacon fluffed it, mouthing protests but to no effect.

Richard Bacon's predecessor, Simon Mayo, graduated to Radio 2. I suspect that Bacon would be more suited to holiday cover for Channel Five.

Tourism tax for Cornwall?

I was at a meeting of Cornwall Council's Tourism Panel this morning where the Head of Visit Cornwall, Malcolm Bell, gave a presentation on future directions for the tourism service. Although Malcolm was keen to point out that there were no definitive proposals as yet, two significant items came out of the meeting:

The first is that, with huge budget cuts all around, the tourism service is intensely vulnerable to cuts. In Cornwall, the income from tourism is the equivalent to £3000 for every man woman and child who lives here. We have 88% repeat visitors (ie people who come back to Cornwall on holiday within 5 years) but the average length of stay has been hit by the recession (down from 7.5 days to just under 7 days). The Visit Cornwall survey shows that Cornwall is resilient to a possible resurgence in the value of the pound against the Euro (just 6% of people said they would go to Europe rather than Cornwall if they got more Euros for their pound). With such opportunities, it would, in my view, be wholly wrong to single out the tourism service from cuts above and beyond the average.

The second, and perhaps more worrying, concern is that, as a result of a proposed change in the law, Cornwall may consider a tourism tax to raise money. This could take a number of forms but all would have the effect of making Cornwall a more expensive place to visit. It is being stressed that this is still being treated as an option, rather than a proposal, but would, in my view, constitute killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Protests, rugby, carnivals and gigs

Huge congratulations to Dave Gordon and everyone who was involved in organising the re-birth of the Launceston Carnival on Saturday. A number of people queried whether, given the choice, a dark evening in October was the right time for a carnival, but, with the rain holding off, it most certainly was.

The streets of town were packed and there were a good number of floats and walking paraders. Well done to the Rugby Club's under 16s who pulled a van the whole way, including up St Thomas' Road.

I hope that the pubs picked up a decent amount of trade from the Carnival. It was a great initiative to have a local real ale in many of them and there were at least two great gigs on.

Earlier in the day there as the Launceston leg of the Keep Cornwall Whole protest march along the line of the Tamar. A group of around 30 people were present for speeches from MP Dan Rogerson, Mayor Paul O'Brien and Saltash Mayor Adam Killeya on the need to avoid a parliamentary constituency that includes bits of Devon and Cornwall.

Sandwiched in between was a rugby match. A pity that the crowd was so low (just over 500 turned out) as the game was an 11 try thriller. It's a rare occurence when a team can win by 8 tries to 3 and yet the outcome be up in the air for so long. The All Blacks led 31-3 at half time and eventually won by 46-24 but only after a terrible 20 minutes brought Sedgley Park back to within a converted try of the home team.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

That shiny new Labour shadow cabinet in full

So, Labour has its new Shadow Cabinet. The trouble is that it's remarkably similar to Gordon Brown's last lot of ministers. In fact, every single one of them was a minister under Brown.

And what's more:

  • they all voted for ID cards;
  • of those who were MPs at the time, all but two voted to go to war in Iraq;
  • of the eight Welsh MPs who stood, none got elected;
  • but eight (out of 19) come from the area between Leeds and Sheffield;
  • the nearest Shadow Cabinet member to Cornwall is John Denham from Southampton (more than 150 miles away)

Nick Brown would have beaten Rosie Winterton if he had been allowed to stand

A week ago, new Labour Leader Ed Milliband sacked Nick Brown from the job of Chief Whip of the Labour Party. Instead, his chosen nominee Rosie Winterton was able to stand for the post uncontested. But it looks as though, had there been an election, Brown would have held onto the post.

What's my evidence for this?

Well, in the Shadow Cabinet elections - the results of which have just been announced - all 19 winning candidates come from the top half of the alphabet. All those candidates with surnames beginning with the letters N-Z were soundly beaten.

Someone will point out that only six out of the 49 candidates in total came from the second half of the alphabet, but I'm sticking to my guns on this one and saying that it just adds to my assertion that politics is biased towards those in the top half of the alphabet (including me).

Parking Panel - Huge rises in store for Launceston

It was a very, very long meeting of the Parking Panel at County Hall yesterday. And whilst I thought it was wrapping up when I had to leave at two, the meeting apparently managed to drag itself out until 5.30pm.

The outcome is that the proposed groupings of car parks was signed off with a few small amendments. The proposed charging hours were signed off in a similar manner.

The biggest issue was that of the charges themselves. As I have blogged before, the Panel chose to consult all Cornwall Councillors on the various options and the proposal favoured by more members who replied than any other (but just 19 out of 123 councillors in total) would have the following effect on Launceston:

---------- Now --- Proposal --- Change
Hour 1 -- 70p ---- 50p ------- -29%
Hour 2 - 130 ----- 170 -------- +31%
Hour 3 - 190 ----- 280 ------- +47%
Hour 4 - 160 ----- 370 -------- +131%
All day -- 320 ---- 400 -------- +25%

So whilst there would be a small cut in charging for the first hour, this would be massively offset by the high increases in charges for subsequent hours.

After much deliberation, and a few changes to make things cheaper for most of the former Caradon area, these charges were signed off.

The panel was assured that the overall car parking budget was only proposed to increase by 2.8%. So I asked how come Launceston was being penalised in such a huge way. Our town centre shops simply cannot afford the loss in customers that such increases will bring. Regrettably, I didn't get an answer to that one.

I don't know what parts of Cornwall are going to see their parking charges lowered if these proposals are carried through, but I know that drivers using Launceston car parks (in fact, all North Cornwall car parks) will be having to pay far more on average. I don't think that a scheme could have been designed which could do more to drive people out of our town centre and towards Tescos - a point I made to the parking panel.

And, what is more, the promise from the Chairman to retain the North Cornwall rover ticket at an affordable rate has disappeared. This permit costs £190 and enables hundreds of users to park in any long stay car park in North Cornwall. The proposed replacement will allow users to choose four car parks and will cost at least £600 a year for those who want to include Launceston as one of their car parks. The only slight concession was that the cost would go up in stages with a rise to £400 next financial year and only reaching the full £600 rate in 2012-13.

My understanding is that this final proposal will no go out to statutory public consultation before it goes to the Cabinet to be rubber stamped. Because of the significantly detrimental effect on the businesses and people of Launceston, I am asking anyone in our area who is concerned about the rises to have their say on the issue during the consultation. I'll post a link to this as soon as it is available.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Don’t miss your chance to have a say on how the Council charges for care

On October 19th there will be a special consultation event in the White Hart Hotel in the town centre about Cornwall Council's new plans for charging for social care support. Anyone who cares about the issue (or just wants to find out more) is welcome to come along to chat with officers about the proposals.

Over the last two months, there has been a major consultation with service users, care providers and the public on a range of options, from keeping the existing way of charging, to not charging at all. People have been encouraged to rank five choices, by filling out preference forms.

So far, nearly 700 responses have been returned, and 200 people have attended a series of ‘drop-in’ public meetings. These have received good feedback from visitors, who were able to discuss how the changes might affect them individually with a member of staff.

The event will take place from 2–4pm at the White Hart Hotel, Launceston

The review of charging affects people who receive home care services from the Council, and does not extend to people living in residential or nursing care. The introduction this summer of personal budgets for service users in Cornwall, means there is a need to review the current arrangements for assessing how much they contribute towards the cost of their care.

All 5,500 current service users were sent a leaflet and preference form, and invited to attend the public events. But this service may be used by any one of us in the future and so it is right that everyone is given the chance to have their say. I'm very grateful to the officers who arranged this event in Launceston.

The formal consultation ends on 13th November. The findings will be considered by councillors at the Health and Adults Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 23rd November, and will be available on the Cornwall Council website a week beforehand. The Council’s Cabinet will then make a decision at its meeting on 15th December.

Lib Dems scrap 'tenant tax'

Liberal Democrat ministers have today announced a major change to the way that the Government treats rents paid by people who live in council houses - including many thousands of residents in North Cornwall.

Lib Dems have long campaigned to reform the Housing Revenue Account subsidy and replace it with a fairer system. We’ve now been able to deliver on that pledge in government.

The unpopular 'Tenant Tax' will be scrapped, with local authorities being allowed to keep all council house rents and sales receipts they collect to reinvest in social housing, under plans announced today by the coalition government.

The proposal, which sees the coalition delivering on a major Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment, will result in the Housing Revenue Account subsidy being scrapped in favour of greater financial freedom for councils. Under the previous system, all council tenant rent was paid into a local housing pot, from which the government retained some of the money centrally.

The new proposals will see this Housing Revenue Account subsidy scrapped. Instead councils will be able to retain all of the money from rents and sales receipts to invest in the repair, maintenance and construction of social housing in their area.

Full details of the new system will be announced as part of the Spending Review on 20 October and will be introduced as part of the Localism Bill this autumn.

This is great news for residents of Ridgegrove, Trecarrell, Hurdon Way and Lanstephan in Launceston as well as other council tenants across Cornwall. It means that Cornwall Council will have more cash to spend on making sure their houses and community facilities are really up to scratch.

Cuts, cuts, cuts

Cornwall Council is talking about nothing but cuts at the moment. The rhetoric coming from the 4th floor at County Hall is that we will have to make £110 million of cuts over the next four years.

The last message to members from Leader Alec Robertson is that they have identified £100 million of cuts which, they claim, will not have an adverse impact on front-line services. It is only the last £10 million which will affect John and Jane Taxpayer. And so the Leader is inviting ideas from councillors across the spectrum for how to save that final £10 million.

The Council is also planning to hold four public consultation events across Cornwall next week to ask the public for their ideas. These events will be in Penzance, Saltash, St Austell and Bude. I hope that members of the public go along to them but I fear that, unless the publicity machine goes into overdrive, few people will actually know they are going on until the last minute.

The Bude event (the closest to Launceston) will be taking place from 6pm-7pm on Friday 15th October at the Parkhouse Centre. If any Launceston resident wants to attend but cannot get there, please give me a call or drop me an email (details in the 'About Me' section the right).

I do think it is interesting that the Council claims to have found £100 million of cuts already and that these will not affect frontline services. If this is true then I congratulate them. We will have to wait until the Cabinet Meeting on 27th October for any details, however, as the planned discussion on 13th October has been postponed.

Friday, 1 October 2010

So what happened to the promised cheap North Cornwall rover ticket?

The thorny issue of parking charges will be debated again on Wednesday with the next meeting of the Council's Parking Policy Panel.

The last decision of the Panel was to consult all Cornwall Councillors on the proposed scale of charges and 68 (out of 123) members have replied. Panel Chairman Andrew Wallis has posted on the subject and has (quite rightly) pointed out that he has sought to be as open as possible on this subject. Full marks to him for his post and for organising the consultation and keeping members generally informed on the subject.

I have a big issue with the proposed scale of parking charges - a point I made in my own response to the consultation. That is that Cornwall Council is trying to squeeze too much money out of parking and that all of the five charging schemes had the overall level of charges too high. I argued that if charges are set too high then people will simply not use council car parks. They will either park illegally on the streets creating lots of obstructions or they will avoid using town centre car parks altogether and simply shop at Tescos where parking is free (other supermarkets are available).

I also argued that the only proposal for a cheap first hour rate did not take into account the nuances needed for such a scheme and therefore could not be supported. I said that we needed a properly worked out 10p first hour scheme so we could make a reasoned decision.

Almost all of the recommendations made by councillors have been ignored since they appear to have been based on a lower overall income from parking. The report simply states:

"With the other budgetary constraints facing the Council it is felt that a reduction in car parking income is unlikely to be acceptable."

It is true that there is a genuine difference of opinion here. Some people will feel that the Council should be trying to boost local business by providing more affordable car parking whilst others will see different service priorities. The trouble with this report is that it closes off that debate.

One of the requests made by a number of members was for the retention of the North Cornwall Rover Ticket (and a similar ticket to be created for other parts of Cornwall). This has also been ignored with the glib response that:

"As we are now one Cornwall there is not a good reason to impose artificial boundaries on car parking."

This is a truly terrible response in my view. Of course we are now operating in a single council environment, but that is no reason to have a centralised 'one size fits all' view of parking. There are many people who travel extensively around the North Cornwall area who do not need or want to have a very expensive ticket that entitles them to park for free in Helston or St Ives - and I am sure that there are people from down West who feel the same about parking in Bude or Saltash. What on earth is wrong with the concept of offering regional parking permits?

The only concession that I can see has been to extend the single car park permit to allow a driver to nominate up to four car parks with charges being based on the most expensive of the four. The minimum charge for such a permit will be £550 per year sticking to the cheapest car parks. If you ant to use more than four car parks then the annual cross Cornwall ticket will cost £825 a year.

So what has happened to the promise made by Cllr Wallis on Radio Cornwall when I questioned him about the North Cornwall Rover Ticket? That ticket is currently £190 per year. On Laurence Reed's phone in, Andrew Wallis promised that a similar ticket would continue to be available and it would cost around £200-£220 per year. Of this there is not a sign in this report. You can read my blog on the day that he made that promise here.

So full marks to Andrew Wallis for the openness of this consultation, but please could he explain what has happened to his promise to retain the cheap Rover Ticket?