Wednesday, 28 December 2011

There's more to Cornwall than the blue bits

Visit Cornwall has just released four pretty stunning aerial films of Cornwall in a bid to market our area to people thinking about their summer holidays. But whilst these are great, there seems to be an over-reliance on coast and sea and there's a missing fifth film that should also have been made.

In a sense, Cornwall is a pretty easy area to market to tourists. We have magnificent scenery, the best climate on the mainland and lots to do. But all too often we fall back on the caricature of bucket and spade holidays and surfing. The key task for Visit Cornwall should be to inspire people to come for more than the bits they know about already. That's something that the organisation is sometimes pretty good at, but not this time.

Take the main 'Cornwall from the Air' film above. Out of 42 different shots, there are only six that don't feature the sea. It may be our standout feature, but there's more to Cornwall than the blue bits and we should be trying to attract people for our culture, food, walking and inland scenery as well as surfing, sailing and sunbathing.

In addition to the main film there are also films of the North Coast, South Coast and West Cornwall - but nothing for East Cornwall. I am told that the footage was kindly donated by a partner and therefore the only costs involved were in the editing, but I still think it was a mistake to ignore the East.

So I have asked Visit Cornwall to come up with some ideas about how they can promote East Cornwall (and the inland bits elsewhere) over the coming year.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Pickles gives approval to stadium plans - and so he should

The news that Secretary of State Eric Pickles has given his approval to the outline planning permission for the stadium is to be welcomed - even by those of us very unsure about the project as a whole.

Whatever the merits or problems of the stadium as a concept or on the basis of its location, it is right that this should be a decision taken in Cornwall and, so long as the decision is taken in a legally sound manner, it shouldn't be for the man in Whitehall to interfere.

Early in the New Year we are expecting the publication of the long-awaited and much delayed consultants' report on the business case for the stadium a well as moves towards a detaild planning application.

Woburn Road 'village green' application goes ahead

I wrote back in the summer about the threat to the green space on Woburn Road. The land is owned by Cornwall Council and an application to build five homes had been put in despite the unobstructed use for more than 20 years for play and dog walking and the wildlife and trees on the site.

The good news is that the planning application was withdrawn and an application to give the land 'village green' status has been received and is now out to formal consultation.

If granted, village green status would recognise that the land has been used as amenity land for a long period and would give a great deal of extra protection against future development applications.

Congratulations to the local residents association for getting this far. I hope the change of status will occur early in the New Year to give local residents a fantastic belated Christmas present.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Camelford Leisure Centre gets £50k lifeline

Very good news for the team trying to save Camelford Leisure Centre - they have been awarded a £50,000 grant from Sport England.

The centre is being dumped by Cornwall Council against the wishes of local residents and the protests of the Liberal Democrats. Despite all the waste, the Conservatives refused to try to find the £62,500 per year it would take to keep the leisure centre operating normally.

Faced with the alternative of losing the leisure centre altogether, local people have put together a business plan and sought out various funding streams. The Sport England grant, which will pay for a biomass boiler and solar panels, is the largest, but there have been a series of others. Huge congratulations to Camelford Mayo Rob Rotchell, centre manager Richard Burke and the countless others who have contributed to this success.

Despite this success, the centre has had to cut services with operating hours cut and staff numbers dropping from 8 to 6. That is why the community management option is still seen as being the second best route to save the centre and why I have pledged to put forward an amendment to the budget in February to keep it as a full time part of the leisure trust rather than casting it adrift.

Free parking Wednesdays in Falmouth during February

It's interesting to see the efforts that Falmouth is making to attract shoppers out of peak season. They are planning to offer free parking in two Cornwall Council owned car parks on Wednesdays during February.

This initiative has been sparked by the Business Improvement District (BID). In Launceston we will soon be seeing a parking refund offer whereby shoppers can get their parking money back if they shop in local stores.

I'm glad that Cornwall Council is now more open to this sort of scheme. The recent report by Mary Portas on the state of the high street picked out high parking costs as one of the things that drives customers to out of town supermarkets.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Another reorganisation at Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council has just announced that it is going through yet another management re-organisation. In an email sent out to councillors, staff and the press late this afternoon, they say that they will be combining the Corporate Support and Economy, Planning and Environment directorates and making the director of the latter redundant.

The Chief Executive says in his message to councillors:

"I have been reviewing our organisational structure in the light of the Council's budget discussions and decisions, and in the knowledge that the UK's continuing severe and prolonged economic downturn will mean further pressure from Government on the public sector.

While we have made impressive progress in delivering efficiencies within the Council, there are undoubtedly further opportunities to reduce our costs even further.

I am keen that we develop a strategy for 'Place', which integrates our approach to living and working in and enjoying and sustaining the natural and built environment in Cornwall. This will require some changes to our structures and in recent weeks I have been discussing with the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT) the impact of the changes that have already been implemented and those that are anticipated.

Many of the recent changes have affected the Environment, Planning and Economy Directorate (EPE). In the last year accountability for the Alternative Service Delivery Project for Neighbourhood Services and for the Green Cornwall Programme transferred to the Communities and Chief Executive's Directorates respectively. We have just commenced a review of the management of economic development which will be moving to the Chief Executive's Department.

In this context, I have discussed with Tom the possibility of a redundancy situation arising and to assist the organisation, he has agreed to take voluntary redundancy from his post as Corporate Director of EPE."

This announcement throws up more questions than it answers. Why is there yet another round of restructuring and reorganisation being announced in the week before Christmas?

If this has been planned for some time, why did neither the Chief Executive nor Leader even hint at it when they were interviewed by the Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee just a week ago? Was this a decision by the cabinet or by the Chief Executive and, if the latter, was the Cabinet even consulted before the changes were announced?

These continual reorganisations always have a cost and we think it should be made clear how much these changes will cost the Cornish taxpayer, both in terms of any pay-offs and any other costs that arise out of the continual rearranging of deck chairs.

The Environment, Planning and Economy Directorate is facing challenging decisions over public toilets, parking and buses amongst other things. But this change creates a vacuum at the head of the department when certainty is needed.

Finally, is this the end of the changes or is Cornwall Council to be in a state of permanent revolution?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Disabled Facilities Grants - long, slow progress

The huge delay in providing adaptations to enable people to carry on living in their own homes was under discussion at the Communities Scrutiny meeting today. The delays are such that some people die before the changes are made to their home.

It's not a simple issue and it has been a problem for Cornwall Council and its predecessors for many years. Over the past year performance has improved, but it's hard to see the amount of need disappearing any time in the near future.

To give you an idea of waiting times, the time taken simply to get an assessment has been cut from 118 working days to 60 working days - but that is still three months. Once the assessment has been done, the works themselves can take up to 310 working days on average to complete. That's the figure for the biggest jobs. The waiting time for the smallest jobs still averaged 160 working days.

As I said, the performance recently has improved and this could be something to do with more money being put into the service. This year the total budget is about £6.5 million compared with about £4.2 million previously.

But the amount of money due to be spent in the future is still under review. The service says it has an agreement to spend up to £10 million over the next three years and hopes to make a further £6 million of efficiency savings. But averaged over the three years, this is actually a cut. That's why I proposed a recommendation to the Cabinet asking for a minimum budget for each of the next three years equivalent to the current year's spend. Unfortunately this proposal was defeated by a single vote and a more watered down recommendation asking for 'enough money to be spent to meet need' was agreed instead.

This is an area which should be a priority for our council. If there continues to be a backlog and people are dying or being forced to move out of their home before the work is done then we will have failed.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

How will Launceston develop - your chance to have a say

For the past year, a group of town and parish councillors, together with local Cornwall councillors has been working on a plan for how our town and immediate surrounding area can develop over the next 20 years.

We have been putting together what is known as a town framework plan. It's the first stage towards a legally enforceable document to ensure that when a developer wants to build, it is the sort of development we want and in the place we want it.

We've had the support of experts in traffic management, the historic environment, infrastructure and utilities and we've conducted site visits to possible development areas. The final results have been put together and there will be a formal public consultation starting in the New Year.

As part of this, there will be a full day consultation in the Town Hall on Friday 20th January from 12 noon to 7pm. Everyone is invited to come along to have their say.

Pirates accept they cannot be promoted this season

Dicky Evans, the owner of the Cornish Pirates, has just put out a statement accepting that the club will not be playing in the Premiership next season. He says that the proposed stadium will not be built in time, and with no suitable stadium, the club cannot be promoted.

I think this was bowing to the inevitable - however much of a disappointment that might be for supporters.

Although I do not support the use of public money for a stadium, I fully support the ambition of the Pirates to be in the Premiership and that means having a suitable venue to play - a stadium with a much bigger capacity than the Mennaye could ever manage. Having the Pirates in the Premiership would be good for Cornwall (and even good for my team, the Cornish All Blacks).

Even with a deal involving using Home Park in Plymouth for a few games at the start of the season, the potential for having a stadium up and running within 12 months seemed ludicrously ambitious. So far only outline planning permission has been achieved and a huge number of key issues have been reserved. And we still have no idea how the construction will be funded. The financial woes of Truro City simply add to the confusion.

I am concerned that the key advocates of the stadium project, Cornwall Council (despite neither full council nor the Cabinet ever having actually voted in favour of the project going ahead) may be giving people false hope both about the viability and about the timescale. Mr Evans is far more realistic and I respect that fact that it is he who has sought to calm expectations.

One key line in Mr Evans statement stands out however:
We are also assured that the Business Plan for the stadium remains robust despite the doubt involving Truro City FC and their commitment.
That business plan will be discussed by Cornwall Councillors in the New Year. I hope to be able to publish it sooner than that so that the public can judge for themselves whether it adds up.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Dan Rogerson MP urges calls to the Home Heat Helpline this winter

Local Liberal Democrat MP Dan Rogerson is urging people across Cornwall to see if they are eligible for help with gas and electricity bills this winter.

New figures have revealed that around 6,200 households in North Cornwall - and over 33,000 across the Duchy - are entitled to some form of assistance with their fuel bills. That help is worth an average of £250 per household and a free helpline is available for more information.

The Home Heat Helpline is a free service that provides independent advice to people on low incomes on how to get help with their gas and electricity bills as well as other help such as grants for insulation or a new boiler. The number for the helpline is 0800 33 66 99 or you can visit

"Over 6,000 homes across North Cornwall are entitled to some form of support. As the colder weather draws in, anyone who is concerned about staying warm should call the Home Heat Helpline and seek advice.

"I would also ask people to look out for neighbours, friends or relatives who may be in difficulty and make sure that they are aware of the helpline."

Christine McGourty from the Home Heat Helpline also advises people to think about what they can do around the home to reduce their energy consumption:

* turn radiators down in rooms which you only use occasionally
* draw curtains over windows at night to provide insulation for the room
* move furniture away from radiators and heaters to allow heat to circulate around the room
* open internal doors of any rooms which get more sun than others and let the warm air travel around your home"

Six million un-registered voters

The latest report by the Electoral Commission on the number of un-registered voters makes sobering reading. It also highlights why we desperately need to retain the annual canvass system and beef up the work done to ensure that everyone entitled to does register to vote.

According to the elections watchdog, there are as many as 6 million people allowed to register but who have not done so. Among the worst affected groups are 19-24 year olds (of whom 44% are not registered) and those who have moved house recently (of whom just 14% are registered).

The switch to individual registration is right because it will help to stamp out fraud, but it needs to be backed up by work to make sure that people register and, key to this, is the annual canvass. Stopping this the year before a general election will have a huge impact on the resulting poll.

The Electoral Reform Society comment on the issue is here and they have got it absolutely right.

Recall elections and why the proposals are wrong

The Government has announced today their plans to allow for a 'recall' system for MPs found guilty of serious wrong doing. But the system has been strongly criticised as putting the power in the hands of MPs rather than voters.

The basic premise is that if 10% of constituents sign a petition for recall then an MP would face a by-election. But the government has inserted caveats that mean that the final decision will rest with MPs themselves in cases where the MP is not sent to jail (an MP sent to jail for more than a year is automatically disqualified). Apparently this is to avoid an MP being forced out unfairly or for 'political' reasons. I fear this will mean that MPs from a party (or coalition) with a majority in the House of Commons will be vulnerable but opposition or rebellious MPs would be more likely to face recall.

If recall is to happen, surely there should be a more objective set of rules governing the system. The 10% figures is clearly such a measure, as is the prison term. But there the robustness ends. Let's take the vacillations of MPs out of the equation. I would suggest that it be a matter for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to declare whether a breach of the rules is 'serious' (or some other term) and that this should be the means to trigger the recall procedure.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

"What do you mean by Truro-centric?"

This afternoon Cornwall Council's Leader and Chief Executive subjected themselves to a grilling by one of the authority's scrutiny committees. It was the first time there had been a formal question and answer session of this sort and the first thing that ought to be said is that it was a very good thing. Well done to John Keeling and Dave Biggs (chair and vice chair of the committee) for arranging it and thank you to Kevin and Alec for coming along and fielding the questions. Some will ask why there hasn't been such a session before, but I hope that it can now be a regular fixture in the calendar.

It won't shock anyone to hear that there were no startling revelations today. We heard again the claims about going early and also about the awards that are being won by the authority. The Chief Executive said that winning a single award might be a fluke but winning lots means the council are doing something right. (A commenter on Twitter reacted by questioning whether the best use of officer time was filling in application forms for awards rather than providing services.)

The interaction on twitter which has characterised a lot of Cornwall Council meetings really came to the fore today. With the meeting being webcast, there were lots of members of the audience ready and eager to have their say. One area where Cornwall Council is genuinely ahead of the game is in webcasting the meetings and publishing the comments made on the broadcast page.

Ironically, perhaps the biggest gripe came about the council's communications. In the meeting we were asking why the council often fails to get the response right first time. In the case of both the council credit card story and on the issue of the Chief Exec's expenses for going to London to attend an interview for a job councillors didn't think he should take, there was a perfectly good explanation. But this explanation was not what Cornwall Council put out to the media first time. I think that the council recognises that there are times when it doesn't get the comms right and the Chief Exec admitted that the bad publicity is usually of the council's own making. I thought that this was a bit more mature than the Leader's whinge early on that the local media never reports the good news.

On Twitter the demand from two local papers was for council bosses to make themselves more available to the media for interview. They claimed they never had the chance to question Cllr Robertson. I was able to pick this up and ask the Leader about it and he pledged that his door would always be open. I hope this is a successful outcome for both parties.

At one stage the Leader claimed that various (un-named) councillors who are new media savvy had repeatedly made false statements about the council and that he had a three page dossier of evidence to back this up. I'm not sure what 'facts' he has, but he reminded some of Rafa Benitez at his most paranoid when referring to his dossier on Alex Ferguson.

Another area of contention was the perception that the Council is 'Truro-centric'. This was brought up by my Lib Dem colleague Ann Kerridge. Rather to the astonishment of both audiences, Cllr Robertson asked what was meant by the term Truro-centric. He claimed that he regularly got out and about in Cornwall and that the authority was 'Cornwall-centric'. Via twitter, respondents from all around Cornwall seemed to take the view that the initial perception is just about right. Whether in Penryn, Penzance or Launceston, the feeling seems to be that the council is out of touch with local needs and feelings. I suspect that they even feel this in Truro.

Interestingly, I have just got an email from an officer telling me that both the Chief Executive and Council Leader have declined our invitation to come to talk to the annual meeting of the Launceston Community Network because they do not attend this sort of meeting. I would have thought that a leadership keen to prove that they care about the whole of Cornwall would have jumped at the chance!

I shouldn't try to pretend that there aren't some good achievements being made by Cornwall Council. There are lots of inspections and peer reviews that show that some of our services which were performing badly are now a lot better. And the Chief Exec told us that the council is twice as popular as the government (I'm asking for the details of that survey). But my guess is that although some key things are getting better, a lot of the services which the public think are important are being neglected - and that is where this administration will come unstuck.

If you want to know more or simply want to see for yourself, the meeting was webcast and will be available in archive to watch again (and again) very soon via the Council's website.

Mary Queen of Shops plans for high street revival

Mary Portas, best known for the Mary Queen of Shops TV series, has published her report and recommendations for revitalising the high street. She was asked to do so by the government which is concerned about the increasing problems faced by town centres.

Ms Portas' key recommendations are to have affordable town centre parking and 'town teams' to improve the overall offer to visitors. One of the key reasons for the success of out of town shopping centres is that they combine shopping with other leisure activities. The US has known this for many years and most shopping malls have cinemas at their heart.

Cornwall Council is already doing some things very well. The town centre manager previously employed just for Newquay is now providing advice to towns across Cornwall. He gives thoughts on things like co-ordinated offers and town centre refurbishment and has provided good ideas for Launceston among other places.

But on other issues we are still heading firmly in the wrong direction. The key one is parking where Cornwall Council has insisted on yet another 3% rise in their overall take despite the disastrous performance this year.

I think Ms Portas is quite right to point out that traditional high streets are simply not an option for many shops today. A town like Launceston has lots of relatively small units. But the big stores need a large floorspace in order to make any money and so they are interested in out of town areas or not at all. Where our town can really succeed, however, is in its specialist shops. Philip Warren might be the most obvious example, but we have a wide range of independently owned businesses and the potential (hopefully) to attract more as well as some of the national firms that can fit into smaller spaces.

But what Ms Portas makes abundantly clear is that we need a co-rodinated approach to making our high streets work. We can't simply abandon them to 'market forces'.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Filling the grit bins on Kensey Valley Meadow

This morning I stepped in to fill the gap in new grit bins at Kensey Valley Meadow after the developer left them less than a third full.

Kensey Valley Meadow residents have really suffered with the ice and snow over the last two years. The hill out of the development means that even a small amount of cold weather can trap people in their homes.

With the road deemed too minor for Cornwall Highways to grit and no grit bins, residents have had no chance to escape once the ice or snow hits. As a result, many people had to miss work and cancel trips from relatives because they could not get out or in. One resident told me that it was like cancelling Christmas.

After two years of claiming that they had no responsibility, the developer, Elan Homes, agreed to provide grit bins this year and promised to fill them. But five of the six were only a third full and the last contained nothing but an empty bucket. I didn't think it was right to put local residents in jeopardy again and so I have paid for all six to be filled to the brim out of my highways budget. The photos show how Elan Homes left one grit bin less than a third full and how full it was after we had finished.

The people of Kensey Valley Meadow have had to put up with delay after delay in the adoption of their roads. The last thing they needed was another winter worrying what would happen if it snowed. Now the grit bins are all full and the Residents Association is in place to co-ordinate gritting the roads and pavements if the ice does come.

The photo at the top shows Residents Association Chair John Belsey (standing on the right) and Vice Chair Mike Childs (on the lorry) with me filling up one of the grit bins on the estate.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Launceston Foodbank opens for business

This morning saw the opening of the Launceston Foodbank and their premises on Newport Industrial Estate. The operation was formally opened by Mayor Rob Tremain and Sasha Gillard-Loft, Adam Paynter and myself were there to handover a cheque for £1300 which is a contribution to the Foodbank from our community chest.

It's sad that Launceston needs a foodbank and that there are people in our community who are struggling so much financially that they need the foodbank to enable them and their families to put food on the table.

But it is to the huge credit of the team of volunteers led by Keith Roberts that the organisation has got up and running so quickly. They have been supported by the churches and by grants and donations from individuals as well as Cornwall Council and the Town Council. They have got premises at a cheap rent thanks to the generosity of Andy Hardy and Premier Carpets and they have been helped out by Terry Graves and others to make it ready to use.

Already the Foodbank has got more than a ton and a half of food via a collection at Tesco and the support of Premier Foods. But once they are in full swing this could last as little as a month.

The Foodbank will hold collections on a regular basis and almost every type of tinned or dried food is wanted (but it must be in date!). Unfortunately, they can't accept fresh or frozen goods.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Late Night Shopping tomorrow!

Launceston's annual festive bonanza takes place tomorrow evening with and evening of entertainment in and around the town. The event is known simply as 'late night shopping' but it's far more than just having the shops open late.

There will be a parade featuring camels, the town band and a samba band. There will be street stalls and a charity auction and there will be food and drink available. And you can do your Christmas shopping at the same time.

If you haven't been before, it's a huge party.

And the lovely people at the Town Council have announced that they won't be charging for car parking in the multi-storey car park after 4pm (the Cornwall Council car parks are always free after 4). So there's no excuse for not coming to join in the fun.

Last year I almost got gored by a reindeer. I'll try not to get trodden on by the camels this time.

Council spends £139,000 a day on consultants

Cornwall Council spent £139,000 per day on consultants in August this year according to new figures just released by the authority. This is despite the frequent promises to cut spending on this area.

The bill for consultants was £4.2 million for the month and another £1.4 million was spent on agency staff.

There is always likely to be some spending on consultants. It's unreasonable to expect the council to have every type of expertise within its workforce. So occasionally we need to buy in people who are, for instance, experts in railway law. But these should be contracts for hours or days, not for weeks or months at a time. And at a time when the Council is busy cutting bus services and threatening to close public toilets, the consultants cost seems particularly obscene. A single day's spending on consultants could save Camelford Leisure Centre twice over.

The same goes for agency staff. There are some areas of council work where a bit of flexibility is needed, but the current numbers are way more than they need to be and new people need training (at the Council's expense) before they can move into the front line. A high agency staff bill is usually a sign of lots of staff absence and sickness as well.

Far too many people employed as consultants or on agency contracts to do jobs you could get someone in Cornwall to do on a full-time basis for far less money.

Back in January, when Cornwall Council was spending a mere £70,000 a day on consultants and £30,000 on agency staff, Conservative Leader Alec Robertson promised new initiatives to cut the cost. And the Council's statement in response to these figures is to promise more of the same.

Liberal Democrats would name a single lead officer and a single cabinet member to take responsibility for spending on consultants and agency staff. We want to reduce the spending month on month and year on year.

UPDATE - The BBC online coverage of the story is here.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The bureaucrats shall inherit the NHS

It's disappointing, but sadly no surprise, that GPs are stepping down from the new clinical commissioning groups set up as part of the health reforms. As a result the bureaucrats will be taking over and one of the key points of the reforms will be lost.

One of the major planks of the reforms are for the abolition of primary care trusts - the local(ish) level of bureaucracy which commissions services from GPs and local and general hospitals as well as other health providers.

In their place will come local commissioning groups which were meant to be led by GPs. With actual doctors on the ground being in charge, the hope was that there would be additional expertise and commissioning based on local knowledge and needs, not the target driven culture of the last government.

This week we have seen the amalgamation of two of the three Cornish commissioning groups as the smaller mid Cornwall organisation joined forces with the very large mid and west Cornwall group. The other organisation is the East Cornwall group which covers mainly the area of Cornwall that looks east to Derriford, Exeter and North Devon hospitals. The effect of this is that, rather than having lots of small local commissioning groups as was hoped, we have large organisations which could be remote from local needs and unaccountable to local people.

The big challenge though has been how to involve working GPs in the decision making. Nationally, it appears that many have chosen to withdraw as this survey by Pulse Magazine has found. The reason for their withdrawal appear to be the time commitment. As one former enthusiast for change told Pulse:
"When commissioning was announced it sounded like GPs would be able to do what they thought was right. But it has shifted to us being accountable here and accountable there and a whole lot of management speak. You never seem to be making any progress."
But the new commissioning groups will still exist, so who is going to run them? Step forward the bureaucrats who have, until now, been running the Primary Care Trusts and other bits of the NHS that have been abolished.

Whilst the ambition of this part of the NHS reforms - to make commissioning more expert and accountable - was laudable, it appears to be falling apart already in some areas.

Clinics being lost at Launceston and Liskeard hospitals

This morning's Cornish Guardian carries a story about the loss of clinics from our local hospitals at Launceston and Liskeard. Over the past couple of years a couple of clinics have been lost from Launceston and six have gone from Liskeard.

The clinics lost provide a very wide range of services including ear, nose and throat; rheumatology, dermatology and orthopaedics. If these services aren't available locally then patients have to travel to Derriford or Treliske to get them.

I have to give credit to Callington Town Council for digging up this information because the changes seem to happen with almost no publicity.

We want an NHS which provides high quality services which are accessible to people in their local hospitals wherever possible. As an example, I know of one patient in Bodmin who needs cataract surgery. She was told that she would have to travel all the way to Hayle to be given a pre-operative assessment and to Treliske for her operation, despite the fact that she doesn't drive. She was told that 'all pre-op assessments for cataracts are done in Hayle'. That simply isn't true and she has now been given an assessment and operation date in Bodmin - hugely more convenient for her. But her case shows that, all too often our NHS is concerned about target times rather than what is right for the patient.

We're calling on the local Primary Care Trust to guarantee the current clinics at Launceston Hospital and to tell us what other services they are putting in to our local facility.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Is Newt promising Valhalla?

The US Presidential contest is hotting up and the Republican candidates are busy producing ads.

There's this from Newt Gingrich:

Forgive me, but every time I see the hand waving through a corn field, I automatically think of the film Gladiator when that image was used as a metaphor for death. Is this what Newt wanted to imply?

At the other end of the scale is this effort from Ron Paul, the ultra-libertarian. It's based on an ad for a truck and so, presumably, is designed to appeal to 'all American' men:

Superfast Broadband now available in Launceston - UPDATED

I posted last month about my frustration with the lack of information coming out of the Superfast Broadband programme. It's a great scheme which will put Cornwall ahead of most of the UK - but it's next to impossible to find out when a particular area will be connected.

The good news is that Launceston is among the first areas to see the roll out and that parts are already connected. It appears that the connected area is the top end of Western Road (the end nearest the A30) and at least part of St Johns Road. Tregadillet is also connected.

I wish I could give more detail about the extent of the area connected and when other areas might be switched on, but the Council won't say. If you want to check whether your home is connected, click here.

UPDATE - I've now been told that the extent of the connected area includes:

Tregadillet, Trebursey, Trevallette, Launceston – St Johns Road, Woburn Road, Castle Meadows, Western Road (end towards Pennygillam) and parts of Pennygillam (mainly Quarry Crescent and Pennygillam Way)

Friday, 2 December 2011

Anyone but Lance - the Tory search for a Police Commissioner candidate

The Conservatives seem desperate to avoid having Cornwall Councillor Lance Kennedy as their candidate in the elections to choose a Police Commissioner next autumn. Two MPs from the region have been tasked with finding candidates to oppose him in the selection contest.

George Eustice and Oliver Colville have been asked by Conservative Central Office to find alternatives to Cllr Kennedy. According to the Western Morning News:
Mr Eustice, David Cameron's former Press secretary, said the party is keen for non-political figures beyond former MPs and councillors to take part in the primaries.

A senior officer from the Armed Forces was the kind of "independently-minded" candidate the party wants to come forward, Mr Eustice said.

In previous statements about the role, Colonel Tim Collins, the retired army officer likely to be the Tory candidate in Kent, told his party conference that the
role was not suitable for:

"sunset councillors or retired policemen with axes to grind"

At one stage the party even suggested that they would not be standing candidates at all.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Buses in North Cornwall first for the chop

It looks like bus services in the most rural areas including the whole of North Cornwall are likely to be first for the chop in Cornwall Council's slashing of the network.

This morning the Environment and Economy scrutiny committee met to look at the model the council is proposing to use to 'score' the different bus services as part of the re-tendering exercise. Those services which score lowest are set to be the first axed.

I had a large number of problems with the different criteria which seemed to be far too much of a blunt instrument. The whole exercise seems to be designed to be quick and dirty - a fact acknowledged by the lead officer who suggested that taking as much as 46 hours to assess all routes in Cornwall on the communities they passed through would be too much. I argued that, when it comes to something as important as our bus network, we should take the time necessary and have a decent scoring system.

Officers admitted that buses which passed close to poorer communities but not through them would not get the marks in that category. Communities of under 500 people would get no marks and there were no fewer than three categories (out of twelve) which essentially all looked at the amount of subsidy per passenger. This is an important factor, but it shouldn't be worth a quarter of the whole mark.

It also appears that no marks are being given to what happens when a bus crosses the border into Devon. So a bus linking with Treliske Hospital gets marks. A bus linking with Derriford or Devon and Exeter does not despite the fact that these are the local hospitals for some Cornish residents.

The biggest shock came when the officers showed how 13 test routes scored when they ran the figures. Two Launceston routes were scored - the 236 service to Liskeard and the 225 service to Altarnun - as well as the Bodmin town service which is very similar to Launceston's 223 town service. The two Launceston services scored in the bottom three and the Bodmin town service scored tenth. It seems highly likely that the scoring system is heavily biased towards services between big towns in Mid and West Cornwall and biased against rural areas and, in particular, North Cornwall.

I'm therefore very worried that this whole exercise will lead to the axing of many routes in North Cornwall and that very poor residents will be left with no way of getting to work, to see family or friends or even to hospital.

I voted in favour of calling on the Cabinet to give more money to the supported bus services - a motion that was overwhelmingly passed - and against the proposed scoring system. Unfortunately the majority formed by Conservative and Independent councillors voted it through subject to the chief officer considering suggestions made by the committee.

UPDATE - The local paper coverage of the story is here.

Labour's prescription for Cornwall - Close small schools and praise the Tories

A council budget meeting is one of the biggest political events of the year. Whilst at other times you can expect to see councillors from different political parties working together, during the budget debate you will tend to see two (or more) very different programmes emerging as different parties set out their vision for our area.

Yesterday we saw a clear difference between those who believe in freezing council tax and those who want to put it up. We also saw a different split between those who believe in the continuing mismanagement of frontline services and those who believe that we should be saving buses and public toilets and protecting town centre businesses from high parking charges.

But what of the Labour point of view. There is a single Labour councillor on Cornwall Council and, despite protestations of making a comeback, they have performed dismally in the two recent council by-elections. Yesterday's performance might explain why.

Jude Robinson nailed her tax and spend colours firmly to the mast with a vote both in favour of a 3% tax rise and against the Lib Dem freeze proposal. But it was in her speech on the main budget debate that she most surprised me.

Her opening line was to praise the current (Tory-led) administration for their work over the past year. Yep - the administration which has presided over a budget crisis, is endangering half the bus network and is threatening to close almost half the public toilets gets the thumbs up from Labour. The reason for the thumbs up? Because of the way they have handled the budget cuts necessitated by the financial crisis left behind by the last Labour government.

She did issue some criticisms. She said she disagreed with the administration on waste and on adult care but saved her biggest attack for the failure to close small village schools. It appears that the headline Labour policy for Cornwall is to attack rural communities and to force poorer families into towns and cities.

So it is clear. Labour's message for Cornwall is in favour of higher taxes, backing the Tory handling of the council and campaigning to destroy village life by closing smaller schools.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Other news from full council

Even though it was the main event, the budget was not the only key item at today's six hour council meeting.

  • The proposal to back a public holiday on St Piran's Day - first put forward by my Lib Dem colleagues Ann Kerridge and Jeremy Rowe back in March - was finally approved. There were a large number of Conservatives (including the Leader) who backed an amendment for yet another round of consultation (presumably using expensive consultants). However the final result was pretty clear cut.
  • Cornwall Council will be continuing to campaign against the proposal for a Devonwall parliamentary constituency and will also be making a formal submission to the boundary commission asking them to use the new ward boundaries rather than the ones which have now been consigned to the dustbin. We don't believe that it helps constituents if people in a single ward are in two different constituencies. We also backed the proposal to retain the 'South East Cornwall' name for a constituency rather than the proposed 'Liskeard'.
  • At least some of the services offered by the Performing Arts Library will be kept in St Austell after a storm of protest greeted the initial proposal to move the entire thing to Threemilestone.
  • It appears that Cornwall Council will be expecting most of the work involved in helping people who do not live on the Olympic Torch route to see the procession to be done by the host towns and villages. I asked whether the Council had been in touch with the bus and train operators to ask them about helping out, but the answer appeared (it was pretty waffly) to be no. There do appear to be plans for other events across Cornwall, but the focal point - the torch itself - is likely to remain out of reach for many families. I'll get the full text of the response in the next couple of days and try to work out the meaning.

A council tax freeze for Cornwall

Cornwall Council today agreed a Lib Dem proposal for a council tax freeze next year which will save a Band D household £31.11.

We faced the choice of asking residents to pay more to maintain the current level of services or accepting the government's offer of a grant to freeze council tax next year. For us this was no choice. We cannot justify asking residents to pay a penny more than we have to.

From saying over the past month that they were not prepared to discuss council tax levels until next year, the Conservative leadership have performed a hurried u-turn and were today prepared to accept the Liberal Democrat proposal of a council tax freeze. What is clear, however, is that the administration is split down the middle on the key issue of council tax with three of the four independent members voting for a 3% rise.

Far from their rhetoric of going early and being bold, the Conservative administration has been reduced to following the Liberal Democrats in doing what is right for local residents. It is clear that the Cabinet is split down the middle on the key issue of council tax and they are failing to deliver what is best for the people of Cornwall.

The Liberal Democrat council tax freeze will save a Band D council tax payer £31.11 next year. That may not be a huge amount, but it will be a welcome contribution to the household kitty of many Cornish families.

Whilst the vote today was pretty clear cut, the final council tax decision cannot legally be taken until February when the full final budget is agreed.

However, the Conservative led administration also accepted three other Liberal Democrat amendments. The first will establish a pot of money to help fund community bus services. The second will begin the programme of much needed investment in our harbours. The final amendment is one which we proposed last year and which was defeated. I'm curious (but delighted) that they have changed their minds now and agreed to reinforce the power of scrutiny committees with our amendment that changes to the budget once agreed cannot go ahead without being agreed first by scrutiny.

Despite the administration accepting these islands of certainty, the Lib Dems had made it clear from the start that we could not vote for the budget. This was mainly because we still do not know all the necessary details. Last year we said the same and it proved to be true with mid year crises in parking, public toilets and buses. The Leader was good enough to hold his hands up to two of these. We still don't feel that all the details have been worked out and, until we are sure that there will be no nasty surprises in the coming year, we won't be backing the budget even though it contains some undoubtedly good elements.

In the end though, the administration got their budget through although they had quite a few abstentions and votes against from within their own ranks.

UPDATE - Jeremy Rowe's take on the budget is here.

Monday, 28 November 2011

... or maybe not

Last week I posted this about a question which had been submitted to the full council meeting tomorrow. Mr Davidson of St Austell was wanting to ask:

"Can I ask a question relating to item 12 - Parliamentary Constituencies Review?"

Last week I suggested that the answer was yes. It now appears that the question has been withdrawn from the order paper and so it is clearly no.

Water Bills to be cut by £50

The Western Morning News this morning reports that George Osborne is proposing a £50 cut in water bills across the South West Water area.

That's hugely good news for an area which has been hit by over-pricing since the Conservatives controversially privatised the water companies. The most argued about element was the need to clean and keep clean more than 30% of the UK's coastline despite the area having just 3% of the population.

Together with what was perceived to be over-charging by the company itself, this lead to water bills which are twice as expensive as London and over £1000 per year in many cases. The average cost in Cornwall is £517 which is roughly 20% more than the UK average.

Liberal Democrats have been campaigning on this issue for many years now and this cut is a good step in the right direction. After all, in 13 years Labour did nothing on the issue. But whilst SWW bills are still the highest in the country - and by such a margin, we'll keep up the pressure on the Government to take further action.

School closures on Wednesday

On Wednesday there is a large scale public sector strike planned over the issue of pensions. As a result, at least 88 schools across Cornwall will be totally or partially closed.

In the Launceston area, these are:

Egloskerry School - open to Class 3 only
Launceston College
Launceston CP School
St Catherine's C of E school
St Stephens CP School, Launceston - only open to ARB
Stoke Climsland School
Tregadillet CP School

Sir James Smiths in Camelford and Budehaven School are also among those closed.

This list may change over time. For the latest information, go to the Cornwall Council site.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Clegg launches £1 bn programme to get young people earning or learning

This email has just landed in my inbox:

Dear Alex,

Today I have launched the Youth Contract, a £1bn programme to get every unemployed young person earning or learning again before long-term damage is done.

We cannot afford to lose the skills and talent of our young people – right when we need them most. We need the next generation to help us build a new economy.

Across the UK, youth unemployment has risen to 21.9% and in Cornwall, there are currently 2985 young people claiming Job Seekers Allowance. We owe it to them to make sure that even in tough economic times, we will do everything we can to find them a job, training or education.

That is why today I have committed the Coalition to investing £1bn to tackle youth unemployment. You can read more about the contract here, but it includes:
  • A work experience place for every unemployed 18 to 24 year old who wants one
  • 410,000 new work places over the next three years
  • 20,000 more incentive payments to encourage employers to take on young apprentices
  • 250,000 new work experience placements
  • And because we know businesses are struggling to take young people on, we will pay half their basic wage for six months
Young people have been hit particularly hard in the recession, but even in the boom years, Labour failed to tackle the issue. During Labour’s 13 years, youth unemployment rose by 40%. With Liberal Democrats in Government, we won’t allow the children brought up in the boom to bear the brunt of the bust. The next generation must not pay the price for my generation’s mistakes. So the Coalition Government won’t sit on our hands and let a generation fall behind.

Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister

Cabinet Member proposes charging taxpayers £7.2 million more next year with 3% amendment

Despite the insistence from Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson that the decision over council tax levels should wait until February, it seems that two distinct options will be debated by councillors next Tuesday.

As I've blogged before, the Lib Dems are proposing that Cornwall accepts the Government's offer of a grant equivalent to a 2.5% rise in council tax in return for freezing the amount we charge residents.

Today it has been announced that Indie cabinet member Julian German is proposing an amendment to raise council tax by 3%.

Such a move would raise an extra £1.2 million to provide more funds for the devolution team transferring assets from Cornwall Council to town and parish councils and money to improve assets that are being devolved; money to protect service delivery levels for footpaths and grass cutting; money for conservation management within the Historic Environment budget and money to deliver the FEAST project within the culture budget.

None of these is a bad scheme. But, in my view, paying for them through extra council tax is a bad idea. These projects could still be afforded through using some of the £7 million extra that Cornwall Council put into their war chest over the past year or by reducing the massively high contingency levels that Cornwall keeps to pay for pet projects and their financial failings.

It's not just the extra £1.2 million for these projects that Julian is demanding from taxpayers. By proposing a rise, he is forcing the Council to spurn the £6 million government grant and condemning householders to pay that money too when they don't have to.

It's also worth noting the language that Julian is using in his amendment. He talks of 'protecting service delivery levels for grass cutting and footpath maintenance'. So it seems that Cllr Robertson wasn't actually telling the truth when he said that his proposed budget contains no new cuts. If he was right then Julian wouldn't need more money to protect current service levels.

Wendron: Lib Dems jump from fifth to second and congrats to MK

In case you haven't seen it elsewhere, this is the result of the Wendron by-election:

Loveday Jenkin (MK) - 427 - 36.4% (+16.4%)
John Martin (LD) - 262 - 22.3% (+12.3%)
Conservative 227 - 19.4% (+3.4%)
Independent 177 - 15.1% (-16.9%)
Labour 80 - 6.8% (+3.8%)

A great result for the Lib Dems jumping from fifth in 2009 to second this time. This was down to a brilliant candidate in John Martin and a fantastic campaign.

Obviously congratulations are due to Loveday Jenkin who came second last time and gained it this time.

The Lib Dems leapfrogged the Tories (third in 2009). This was the fourth by-election in this council. So far they have lost two seats and been failed to make any impression in two others that they thought they would win.

And where were Labour? Remember all their boasts about being a serious force in Cornwall. Perhaps you could excuse Bude - not exactly their best area. But half of Wendron falls within Camborne, Redruth and Hayle - their supposed heartland.

Thanks to everyone who helped in Wendron. We can be proud of this result.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Council to delay 22 road safety schemes to plug parking budget hole - details

Cornwall Council has backed down on its proposal to use the money given by the government to repair roads damaged by harsh weather to plug the hole in its parking budget. That's great news, but there will still be 22 road safety schemes which are being delayed.

Last year, the Liberal Democrats warned that Cornwall Council's parking budget didn't add up. Unfortunately the Conservative-led administration refused to listen to us. As we predicted, there is a shortfall of at least £2 million this year. In order to meet part of this, the proposal had been made to use £1m of the £4.12 million that the government gave to repair ice and snow affected roads to plug the hole.

The Lib Dems warned that delaying road repair schemes that are designed to ensure safe driving is a very dangerous thing to do. To an extent, the council have listened to us this time. They have decided to delay other schemes and not those using the Government grant. Whilst this is welcome, it's still a risky thing to delay any road safety scheme.

The schemes affected are:

The work planned in each area is a variety of re-surfacing, patching, jet cleaning and the installation of anti-skid surfacing.