Monday, 31 January 2011

Stadium confusion

Today Radio Cornwall was abuzz with news on the proposed White Elephant for Cornwall (otherwise known as a Stadium for Cornwall).

The radio claimed that some sort of deal had been done but that this would be without Cornwall Council money. If so, that is good news. I have no problem with the idea of the Cornish Pirates - or any other private sector organisation or individual - building a stadium if they want. But such a project should not be subsidised by the taxpayers of Cornwall. We have already put around £80,000 into the scheme by funding a feasibility study and I have argued that this should be the end of it. Indeed, at the emergency budget in December, councillors decided to take money for the stadium out of the capital programme.

And so I asked the Leader about the issue at today's Cabinet meeting. His answer was that no deal had been done and that the Cabinet would be discussing a paper on the issue in due course.

I'm confused about why - if no council money is to be involved - this will be coming to Cabinet at all. Surely the only council involvement should be to adjudicate on a planning application if and when one is submitted.

We will have to wait and see...

UPDATE - According to the BBC Cornwall website, the Pirates would move in for a ten year tenancy and would secure the money for building. That implies that someone would have to pick up the costs of running the facility after that period. I suspect that is where the Council would have to come in.

Good news - Wheelie bins abandoned and fortnightly collections less likely

It is unusual for a Cornwall Council Cabinet report to be good news, but, in the circumstances, that must be the view of today's decision over the future of waste collections.

I've blogged in the past about the proposal to abandon weekly black bag collections and to impose wheelie bins. Those posts were based on the comments from the responsible cabinet member and briefings given to councillors.

Now the Cabinet has made clear how split it is on the issue. There are clearly those on the Cabinet who are violently opposed to a move away from weekly waste collections. Other Cabinet members want to see a change on the basis of the environmental benefits of weekly recycling and fortnightly black bag collections.

And so the agreement is to get quotes for both options and to ask the public what they think. Indeed, the Leader suggested that councillors ought to be campaigning in favour of their preferred option. I suspect that the Cabinet will still be split on the issue - largely on Conservative vs Independent lines and so the final decision will be an interesting one.

How will the final decision be made? Today I was told it will be a mixture of the costs proposed, the response of the public and the quality of the services which are proposed. All of this will continue to be a reserved matter for the Cabinet with 113 of Cornwall's 123 councillors locked out of the decision.

The other key change proposed was on the issue of wheelie bins. The original cabinet papers suggested that if Cornwall adopted fortnightly waste collections then there would be wheelie bins introduced in most of Cornwall. Now that proposal has been dropped and black bags will continue except in the former Penwith area where they already use wheelie bins.

Finally, I asked the Council to reconsider how disposable nappies and adult incontinence pads would be collected - particularly if fortnightly collections are to be introduced. These products cannot be recycled and have to be put in the general (black bag) waste. The prospect of keeping these in a house for up to 14 days - or even putting them out on the street - is not one that anyone wants.

In response, Cabinet Member Julian German said that he would look at extending the current medical waste collection service to collect nappies and pads.

And so we have no final decision yet on the waste issue but the chances of keeping weekly collections appears to have risen and we have got rid of the threat of wheelie bins clogging our streets (and rivers).

UPDATE - I've been told that the way the Council is thinking of asking for views is by issuing ballot papers with council tax bills. I've asked them also to make sure additional ballots are available from libraries and one stop shops so that as many people as possible can have their say. I've also asked for the case for each option to be put by an advocate from that side of the debate.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Tev presses the Government over second home voting

My council colleague Robin Teverson has been hard at work in the House of Lords pressing Cornwall's case for clarification over the rights of second home owners to cast a vote in elections based on their holiday homes.

The issue has been a longstanding one in Cornwall where around one in twenty houses is a second home and, in some areas, the figure is more than one in ten. There is a fear that second home owners are choosing to use their votes in Cornwall and could swing elections even if they spend very little time here and have no knowledge of local politics.

Cornwall Council agreed that we should highlight our concerns to the Government and Chief Executive Kevin Lavery wrote recommending that a person should only be able to vote from their main residence.

Robin made that case again today and, disappointingly, the Minister, Lord Taylor, said the Government has no plans to make a change in the law but will keep the issue under review. This is a polite way of saying no.

This is a blow to Cornwall where the registration officers feel the current law is so unclear that they cannot issue proper guidance to people seeking to register. Whilst Cornwall Council feels it has identified a good way forward, we accept that other people have a different point of view. But what is quite clear is that the current law is inadequate.

Cornwall Council published spending data

A couple of days ago I blogged that Cornwall Council only had five days left to comply with new regulations requiring the online publication of all spending over £500. Yesterday, the Council achieved this aim.

You can find all the facts and figures here.

No doubt there will be a number of news stories coming out of this publication as people discover just what our council tax is spent on.

But congratulations are due to the Council for meeting the deadline and publishing the data.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Council chief exec's £5k trip to the US whilst budget for homeless is cut

Cornwall Council is currently in the process of cutting 40% from its budget for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. The Supporting People budget funds services for people who are vulnerably housed as well as projects such as the foyers which provide a roof over the head of young people who would otherwise by homeless.

Yet at the same time the Council found about £5000 to send our Chief Executive on a four day trip to New York for a conference. The details of the event are written up on the West Briton website.

It is right that the Council should make sure that every employee (from the Chief Exec down) is given the opportunity for further development and training, but this should always be on the basis that they will be doing a better job for the council taxpayers of Cornwall as a result. It is not the duty of hard pressed local families to be paying for CV padding.

I don't know the details of what happened on this prestigious US training event, but I understand that Cornwall's Chief Exec was the only public sector person there and also the only person from the UK. I would be interested to hear more about what he learned and what difference it has made to the running of our council. If this spending can be justified then we deserve to know the details.

But even if it is decided that this was a training event of immediate benefit to the people of Cornwall, one has to ask why it needed to be undertaken in America at a cost of around £5000. There are several very good management schools in the UK which run similar courses. Why was one of these not considered more appropriate - especially as it would be more likely that attendees would be networking with those they might actually be doing business with.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Cornwall Council's 5 days to comply

Cornwall Council has just five days left to comply with new Government regulations about financial transparency. The rules mean that all spending over £500 must be published online by the end of this month.

Cornwall's Council Leader Alec Robertson has twice been asked about this deadline and has confirmed both times that Cornwall will meet it. I'm sure that the Council will do so, but it's getting awfully tight...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Council seeks to cut 102 library opening hours across Cornwall

Conservative led Cornwall Council is proposing to cut library opening by 102 hours per week as the authority seeks to save more than £1.5 million from library and one stop shop budgets over the next two years.

Of the 32 branch libraries in Cornwall, 24 will see their opening hours reduced. Among the worst hit will be Fowey and Looe libraries which will lose 15 hours opening each per week and Saltash and Torpoint libraries which will each lose 9.5 hours opening. Just one library will see additional opening hours - Lostwithiel which will gain an hour per week.

The changes are aimed at 'harmonising' library opening hours with each of the five library bands having set opening hours wherever they are in Cornwall.

This is a very regrettable move. Residents across Cornwall will be getting a worse service from one of the best loved parts of the Council. The Tories who run Cornwall Council should be seeking to get more library users, not shut them out.

I don't see a need to force a 'one size fits all' approach onto library hours. It is the opposite of the localism that they claim to be pursuing. Forcing all branches to adopt the same opening and closing times and all but the biggest to have the same days off ignores local customs such as market days. Why force a branch to close on a Wednesday if that is the busiest day of the week. Some community groups will have to move their longstanding meeting times to fit a bright idea coming from County Hall.

I am relieved to see that Saturday opening and late openings will be preserved, but overall this is a step in the wrong direction which Liberal Democrats warned about during the budget debate and will continue to campaign against.

UPDATE - BBC Cornwall have covered the story here and you can listen to me discussing the issue on Radio Cornwall here (scroll through 1hr 41mins)

Council considers closing or charging for public loos

Cornwall Council is considering closing, abandoning or charging for public conveniences in efforts to save money.

In a letter sent to town and parish councils, Cornwall Council says:

"The provision of public conveniences... is not something that Cornwall Council has a statutory requirement to do. The challenge is to make £1m of public convenience service efficiencies within the next 4 years."

The letter goes on to suggest ways in which this saving could be made:

"- reducing the opening times to fit more closely with peak demand;
- introducing more efficient water and electricity management;
- devolving local public convenience management to parish councils;
- putting a charge in place;
- closing some public conveniences where there is a strong rationale to do so"

The option of more efficient water and electricity management is a sensible one in my opinion, but is hardly likely to save £1 million. So it will come down to introducing charges, closing or restricting the opening hours of public toilets or handing them over to town or parish councils.

The letter goes on to say:

"Would your (town or parish) Council, for instance, be willing to take on the responsibility for the management of some, or all, of the public conveniences in your parish under the Active Partnering scheme? Or to own and maintain conveniences that would otherwise be earmarked for closure? Your view on this might be dependant (sic) on whether Cornwall Council could ensure that they were brought up to a good standard of repair initially. Alternatively there could be local community organisations that you know which would be willing to take them on?"

So the message seems to be that Cornwall Council is prepared to close some public toilets and the only way they can be saved is if town and parish councils (which have already set their budgets for next year) are prepared to pay for and manage them.

The phrase active partnering refers to town and parish councils managing facilities on behalf of Cornwall Council and being paid to do so - although the fact that the Council seems prepared to close some facilities indicates that the opportunities for this may be very limited.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Parking Panel - a decision that could kill Launceston town centre

Today Cornwall Council's parking panel made a decision which could help to kill Launceston's town centre.

I have blogged frequently in the past about the proposals that the panel had come up with. Set the impossible task of coming up with a scheme which raised revenue by 6% and equalised charges across Cornwall, the panel had made a proposal which would see average hourly rates in Launceston rise by 42% and would increase the season ticket price over the next two years to £600 from the current £195.

Then the Cabinet reported that they had discovered 'new information'. This new information was that there had been various profit sharing deals done by the former district councils (why didn't we know about these earlier) and that the business rates estimate was out by hundreds of thousands of pounds. But, most crucially, we were told ten days ago that the income from parking was estimated to be running a shortfall of £900,000 in the current year. Today, we were told that this amount was actually £1.8 million. There had been no warning that this was coming and, to my mind, shows that the Cabinet member is simply not on top of his brief. Cllr Hicks should have known about any shortfall as and when it occurred and taken action accordingly. To be landed with this at the end of the year is quite incredible.

The Cabinet appears to be demanding that this year's shortfall be recouped next year. They also estimate that the current proposals will result in a £3 million shortfall next year and that too must be addressed.

I spoke at the Parking Panel and said that, in my view, this was simply not feasible. I believe that the lower income proves that people cannot afford to pay high parking fees and putting them up will do no good whatsoever and may even result in an even lower income.

And so, in order to make more money, the parking panel has decided to do three things:

- they are to look again at the types of car parks operated by the council and to seek to split them into those which might be considered community car parks used by locals and those which are destination car parks used by visitors. The evidence is that visitors are more happy to pay higher costs than locals. This work will take several months.

- they will phase the new charges so that all the bad stuff happens straight away and any good aspects of the new regime are delayed. According to the Chair of the Panel, this means that the only good news for Launceston - the first hour charge dropping to 50p from 70p - will be delayed but all the price hikes will take place from April 1st.

- the proposed staging of the season ticket price rises will be abandoned. Instead of the season ticket cost rising to £400 on April 1st (from £195), it will go straight up to £600. The lead officer said he was confident that people would continue to pay it. I know from talking to some of the lowest paid workers in our town that this will not be the case and they will quit their jobs.

Even this proposal only goes halfway to sorting out the £3 million black hole in Cllr Hicks' budget and, from what he said at the meeting, I think it is likely that he will try to find a way to raise the remainder as well.

The Council's lawyer has ruled that this decision must go out to consultation, but the previous effort - in which 1100 people replied and all but 6 rejected the increases - shows that Cornwall Council is hardly likely to listen to complaints.

I have asked at the last three meetings for an assessment of the likely impact on the economy of Launceston and other towns affected but each time have been told that the Council does not intend to do this research.

Regrettably, Cllr Phil Parsons, the Tory councillor representing a ward in the Launceston area and who is a voting member of the parking panel (I have no vote on it) didn't turn up for today's decision.

Could solar panels be coming to Ridgegrove?

Ridgegrove Estate in Launceston could be one of the first areas in Cornwall to benefit from investment in solar panels. The scheme, which could provide hot water as well as much cheaper electricity bills, is being considered by Cornwall Council.

The former government set up a scheme to encourage local authorities to invest in solar power and created a 'feed-in' tariff which means that any excess energy that is produced and fed into the national grid will mean a payment of around 41p per unit.

At the end of last year I met with Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne MP - one of the Lib Dem ministers in the coalition - and he said that he would continue the scheme for around two years. I passed this information on to the Council and have been asking them to consider investing in local council housing. The Ridgegrove Estate is in a prime position as many of the homes are south facing and therefore able to take full advantage of the sun.

If this goes ahead - and council officers are currently planning how to make it happen - then it will be a huge boost to local householders who will see their electricity bills fall dramatically.

I want to make sure that the details are right and to ensure that council tenants do not have to pay for solar panels to be installed. I also want the scheme to be made available to owner occupied and privately rented households at as cheap a price as possible.

Full marks to Julian German and council officers for their action so far. Cornwall is ideally placed to take advantage of natural resources such as solar power. It is the right thing to do for our environment and the right thing to do for local residents.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Only a council could consider putting up leisure centre prices during economic downturn to be a good thing

Cornwall Council has just put up its leisure centre costs at a time when local residents are suffering from the economic downturn and despite a shortfall of around £290,000 in their expected income this year.

I, and my fellow Liberal Democrat councillors, have condemned this decision which is likely to see even fewer people using Cornwall's leisure facilities over the coming year.

As my colleague Nathan Bale put it:

"There isn't a business in the country that sees an economic downturn as a good time to raise prices"

Put simply, if people do not have money in their pockets then they will concentrate on putting food on the table and paying heating bills. Optional spending, like leisure centres, will be the first to be hit. So in order to keep people coming through the doors, the Council should be lowering, not raising, its prices. The shortfall in income (as with parking) just goes to prove that prices are already too high for the current market.

The Council's excuse for the shortfall is that the bad weather hit customer numbers. They point out that they had to close two leisure centres for a couple of days. It's certainly true that the recent ice and snow may have put people off. But the shortfall is around 6% of the entire year's predicted income and so cannot be explained by even a full week of every leisure centre being closed, particularly in December which is a quiet month.

Council commits to 're-balancing' localism staff

Cornwall Council has admitted that there is a need to 're-balance' localism staff in order to correct the shortfall in support given to the East of the Duchy. The pledge was made by Assistant Chief Executive Paul Masters during a scrutiny discussion of the administration's plans for the localism service yesterday.

Localism is the term used for the support given to the different parts of Cornwall following the move to a unitary authority two years ago. The Liberal Democrats viewed this as an essential part of the restructuring to stop all decisions being made in Truro. Unfortunately, the first act of the Tory led Council was to put localism on hold and it was about 6 months before the service started to develop.

There are 19 community networks and each is served by a Community Network Manager and Support Assistant. The excellent team that serves the Launceston Network also covers the Caradon area based on Callington. These posts will not be affected - which is great news - but some of the additional support given to the West will be shifted so that there is additional expertise available to the East.

We had been concerned about rumours circulating that the localism staff would be put into a pool based in Truro and allocated on a project by project basis. We believed that this would lead to a lack of continuity and more centralised control. Mr Masters scotched these rumours and the plans appear to be a good step in the right direction.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

How best to communicate with young people?

This evening there was a consultation event for young people and Cornwall Councillors held at Jericho's in Launceston. The participants came from our town, Callington and Bude areas and ranged in age from 14-18.

The evening split into three parts. There were some presentations from young people on the sort of projects they are involved in, a 'speed dating' session for young people to chat with the councillors about different issues and a discussion about the best and worst aspects of each town.

During the speed dating session I was discussing how best to communicate with young people. We chatted about the ways in which young people themselves like to communicate - with Facebook coming out by far the most popular - and how they would get in touch with decision makers such as councillors if they wanted to have their say. Again, a lot of the participants want to be able to communicate with elected politicians via Facebook, but there was also mention of email, phone, text and going along to surgeries.

I mentioned that Cornwall Council broadcasts bigger meetings via webcast and most people there thought that this was a good thing and they would watch a debate if it was on a subject that they were interested in. But they also wanted to be able to have their say on the subject as you can with, for instance, a Youtube video. I think that there is still a way for Cornwall Council to go in making the webcast truly interactive, but we are on the right track.

I also mentioned this blog and twitter. Not that many people at the event use Twitter but those that do thought that being able to get in touch with a councillor via the medium was a good thing. As for blogs, the view tended to be that they would read a local blog or a specific post on a subject that interested them but that it would have to be relevant to their lives to be interesting.

And finally, what about traditional political leaflets? Most young people said they did not see these and would not be particularly interested even if they did.

The event was wrapped up by Launceston's own MC Tricky who succeeded in rapping about the discussions in his own unique way.

Also tonight, there was a promotional event for the Eden Project's Barefoot Games, a volunteer scheme for young people aged 16-25 which took place at the Eagle House Hotel. There will be another event in a couple of weeks or so and I'll post more details about this then.

Survey shows one in four drivers break Dutson Road speed limit

Some drivers using Dutson Road in Launceston are travelling at more than 60mph and around one in four break the 30mph speed limit according to a survey carried out by Cornwall Council. The road has been described as one of the most dangerous in Cornwall as it is used by many schoolchildren and families despite having no pavement for much of its length.

Many residents have been asking for action to be taken to slow traffic down and the recent SpeedVisor survey was the first step in making that happen.

The results show that, although most drivers obey the law, around 25% do not. The limit on the road is 30mph and some motorists were travelling in excess of 60mph when they passed the speed sensor.

Dutson Road is clearly a very dangerous place to be a pedestrian. It is the main route for many local residents into town and for those children walking to school. For part of its length there is no pavement and cars parked next to the boundary wall force pedestrians into the middle of the road.

I believe that the evidence is clear. Dutson Road is dangerous and the Council needs to take action to slow cars down and to protect pedestrians. I have therefore asked officers what action they will take.

Robertson missed full council meeting after drinkies with the PM

Cornwall Council's Tory Leader Alec Robertson missed last Tuesday's Full Council meeting because he had 'flu according to the apology which was read out to members at the time. His absence meant that members could not question him on the running of the council which is currently making huge cuts to frontline services.

Yet the evening before he had been at a reception at 10 Downing Street given by the Prime Minister for Conservative council leaders.

I have checked with the Downing St press office who have confirmed that the event took place on Monday evening and was attended by David Cameron and Local Govt minister Eric Pickles among others.

Also present - and shown in the photo above - was Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson. I've added the circle to show Cllr Robertson. The original pic is available on the Conservative Home website.

So why did Cllr Robertson miss the full council meeting? If it was really flu then he did remarkably well to be up and about again for Wednesday's Cabinet meeting. It surely can't have been a hangover?

Should it be 'good riddance' to Ryanair rather than 'goodbye'

Ryanair have announced that they are abandoning Newquay Airport as they cut their summer route to Alicante. Some might say that it should be good riddance rather than a sad goodbye.

Ryanair is the ultimate marmite company. To many, their low charges have helped to bust open the old state carrier monopoly. But to others their extra charges and sometimes misleading adverts are a source of anger.

As far as Newquay Airport goes, the airline has been a pain in the proverbial. Quick to criticise the Council when it was forced to shut the airport for urgent safety works when the RAF pulled out, Ryanair nevertheless saw no problem in telling passengers who had booked and paid for advertised flights that the route was being ditched.

The official reason for Ryanair leaving Newquay is the £5 airport development fee charged for each passenger departing. Airport Development Fees are a pain, it is true. But they are charged widely across the globe. Surely they are not as unreasonable as Ryanair's charge for the temerity to want to take a razor on holiday* or to pay for your flight with a credit or debit card other than their own obscure favourite?

Newquay Airport does, of course, need every bit of business it can get at the moment and no doubt Cornwall Council, as owners of the facility, will be bemoaning the loss of the Ryanair flights. However, I can't help thinking that this particular airline might be seen as more trouble than they are worth.

*Ryanair charges for bags in the hold of the aircraft. Passengers may not carry razors or other sharp instruments in the cabin.

Launceston Town Council unanimous in opposition to fortnightly rubbish collections

At last night's meeting, Launceston Town Council voted unanimously against any move towards fortnightly rubbish collections in place of the weekly service the town currently receives.

The issue was raised by a resident of Hurdon Way who was concerned about the impact that uncollected black bags would have on his area and the rest of the town. He asked the Town Council to make representations to Cornwall Council against the change.

I was asked to tell the council what changes were likely and gave my own opinion supporting residents against the change. Although the introduction of food waste collections and efforts to improve recycling are to be welcomed, the bottom line is that abandoning weekly black bags collections will have a detrimental impact on our town in my view.

The former (Conservative) Leader of North Cornwall Council, Graham Facks-Martin then proposed a motion to support weekly collections. One of the speeches in support came from former Conservative candidate for Cornwall Council John Conway who said he was appalled that a Conservative administration was going back on its manifesto promise to keep weekly collections. The motion was voted through with unanimous support.

We know from what Cabinet Member Julian German told Full Council that the Cabinet will be voting on a system of 'managed weekly collections' which we understand to mean fortnightly general rubbish collections together with weekly food waste pick ups. They are also likely to seek to impose wheelie bins on many areas.

In 2009, the Conservatives promised not to abandon weekly rubbish collections and it now seems that they are ditching that promise. If they do so, it will clearly be in opposition to the wishes of many of their supporters in North Cornwall.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Council will salt one car park per town

Cornwall Council has announced that it will salt one car park in each town in future icy weather. A number of residents had complained that, whilst they pay for season tickets, in icy weather the car parks can be inaccessible.

In Launceston, the car park to be treated will be the Cattle Market. That is good news for residents who leave their cars overnight, but may not be such good news for other drivers unless there is a commitment to salt the roads and (particularly) pavements which access the Cattle Market. After all, there's no use having an ice free car park if you cannot get into it and Race Hill is fairly steep leading to the entrance causing difficulties for pedestrians in the ice and snow.

The downside of the new policy is that salting will only happen after the snow and ice is formed - there will be no preventative treatment as happens on major roads. I am told that car parks will be inspected early in the morning and, if needed, treatment will happen later.

Overall, this is a step in the right direction and I thank the Council for it.

Tunisia - another test for the west

Over the weekend, the country of Tunisia has seen its president decamp to Saudi Arabia following a populist uprising against more than 30 years of autocratic rule. There has been bloodshed but, proving that his last decision was at least the right one, former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali saw the writing on the wall early and weeks or months of bloody violence may well have been averted.

Various commentators have been quick to jump on the bandwagon proclaiming that a number of other dictators or autocrats across the arab world will be worried that their time too might well be up.

But this is wholly the wrong viewpoint. Tunisia's problems and solution will and must be its own. Of course the opposition to Mubarak in Egypt or Assad in Syria will take some heart. But it is as wrong to view Tunisia as the start of some domino theory in North Africa as it was to look at the changes in Eastern Europe - from Ukraine to Georgia - as being one and the same process. It is journalism as lazy as those who try to find a link between the results of Lower Saxony regional elections and the choice of a new President of Portugal.

Robert Fisk has written an interesting article in today's Independent in which he says that the emergence of a new democracy in Tunisia will depend, to some extent on the West. Our governments have been happy over the years to support the stable dictatorship of President Ben Ali and change (even if it is towards a more liberal democracy) means concern and losing focus on the bigger picture - our worry over Iran.

The biggest decision, however, is for those who seek power in place of the toppled President. Both Speaker Foued Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi have declared themselves interim ruler of Tunisia. Do they really mean to implement the changes that they speak about or do they have their eyes on the main chance - an opportunity to allow their friends and families to take over the wealth creating institutions of state and a massive boost to their Swiss bank accounts?

Rather than sit on the sidelines and pretend it is nothing to do with us or enter the fray all guns blazing (or even seek to tie up the country's natural wealth for our own companies), our Government should seize the chance and offer aid and trade deals to a new government as well as to help them write a new constitution which embodies the history and culture of an arab country with the democratic institutions and the rule of law of the west.

As with any country which has suffered years of autocratic rule, there is, regrettably, no opposition party which is in a position to take over the whole apparatus of state straight away. Elements of the former ruling class will be needed into the future, albeit with those who enriched themselves the most to the detriment of their fellow countrymen stripped of power. Commitment to change (alongside hefty penalties for those who renege) should allow the minor functionaries to help build the new state.

(Declaration of interest - I have worked in the past in seminars where representatives of Tunisian liberal parties were participants.)

Friday, 14 January 2011

Cornwall's parking plans labelled a shambles

Today’s meeting of the Car Parking Panel was the stormiest I have attended in my time on Cornwall Council. It featured two calls for the Cabinet member, Graeme Hicks, to resign and the words shambles and embarrassment were repeated often.

The meeting was dominated by the new information that the Cabinet claimed to have received on the state of car parking finances. Some of this info was stuff which should have been obvious to anyone involved in local Government. For instance, Cllr Hicks told the full council on Tuesday that he was dismayed that the Council pays business rates on their car parks and VAT on the income from them.

Some of the information was genuinely new to the committee and that involved the shortfall in parking income this year of around £900,000 and some weird and wonderful deals that appear to have been done by the former district councils with the land owners of some car parks. But the truth is that this sort of thing should not have been news. It is 19 months since Cornwall Council came into being and there was an Implementation Executive tasked with drawing the seven former councils together before that. Details such as historic income levels, land ownership and existing commitments are vital and should have been the first priority of the administration. To fail to have such information is a colossal failure and makes a mockery of our work. The buck should stop at the top and I repeated my call for Cllr Hicks to resign from his role as portfolio holder.

I wasn’t the only one to do so. Conservative councillor Mike Eathorne Gibbons also called for heads to roll at the very top.

The consequence of the ‘new information’ was that officers and the Cabinet member sent the whole issue back to the Parking Panel despite the detailed set of proposals having been worked out over the past 12 months.

A key point which has yet to be fully explored is that at each of the meetings where the Parking Panel has considered their proposals over the last four years, reports have been presented saying they had been cleared by the finance department and were rated as being low risk. Yet today we were told that the proposals are very high risk and that they might not get the income they expected.

And so the panel is being given ten days to come up with a new set of proposals. Some ideas were given by officers - and none of them at all palatable:

  • It was suggested that the proposed stepped increase in season ticket prices might be abolished so that residents of Launceston would see prices rise from £195 to £600 immediately, without an intermediate year at £400 to soften the blow. There would be similar rises in much of the rest of Cornwall.
  • It was proposed that the first hour charge go up. At the moment the proposal is for a slight drop in this price but officers asked that a rise of around 20p be considered instead.
  • A final proposal to consider was said to be a phased increase with all cost rises brought in straight away and the small price drops delayed, perhaps forever.

Reaction from the councillors was one of horror. Many expressed their dismay that this information should come at the last minute and others said that it would be impossible to tweak the proposals and that the committee would have to start again from scratch. This was opposed by Cllr Hicks.

Among the other points made:

  • Tamsin Williams said that people are at breaking point in their personal finances and cannot afford more;
  • Andrew Long rubbished the idea that a 5% rise in prices would result in a 5% rise in income saying that the economy was more delicate than that and many people would simply stop using car parks altogether, either parking in the street or using supermarkets rather than town centres. He went on to say that through ignorance, incompetence or sheer stupidity the council has been slow in coming across with information on a number of subjects.
  • Les Donnithorne said that the new information would lead to the general public seeing the council as inept and councillors as sheep.
  • Patti Rogerson said that fairness is not necessarily about equality or consistency. The Panel has misinterpreted fairness for equality and is forgetting about the community, about residents and about people.
  • Steve Rushworth said that in business a shortfall in income would be dealt with over a 5-10 year period rather than by an immediate price hike and the Council ought to be working on the same basis.
  • Mike Eathorne-Gibbons suggested that the report on the consultation exercise had been seriously flawed and did not represent the true views of respondents. He also supported my own view that the Panel should recommend a freeze for the coming year and look at the issue again.

The Panel agreed a whole range of new information that would be needed for the decision to be taken and will meet again on January 24th.

UPDATE - To listen to my interview on the subject, click here and scroll through to 2hrs 2min 40secs

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Council refuses to reveal details of gifts and hospitality given to officers

Cornwall Council is refusing to make public the gifts and hospitality given to its officers and is only releasing limited details of those given to councillors.

Both officers and elected councillors take important decisions which affect the lives and businesses of the people of Cornwall as well as companies up and down the land. It is vital that such decisions are taken without undue influence, bribery and corruption. I have no reason to suspect that any officer or councillor has been bribed, but the Council's current policy appears to make it easier for this to happen if the will was there.

Each councillor has to make a declaration of interests - ie any land that they own or lease, their business interests and any groups or committees that they are members of. We also have to declare any gifts or hospitality that we receive which may be valued at more than £25.

A local newspaper made a Freedom of Information request to ask for the details of gifts and hospitality received by both members and officers. The response was to refuse to give any details for officers, saying that these were personal matters and individuals had a right to expect privacy.

I respect the fact that this might be Cornwall Council's policy, but, if so, it is just plain wrong. We are not asking for details of the Christmas presents received by officers - just gifts and hospitality which are received in connection with their work for the Council.

The Council has only released limited details of the gifts and hospitality received by elected members. They have said the type of gifts received (including rugby tickets, bottles of wine and meals) but not who received them. This is a matter of policy, but again I think it is wrong.

I have asked the Council's legal officers to provide me with the full details of the policies concerned and I will be seeking to change that policy so that all gifts and hospitality valued over £25 which are given to members or officers and available for public inspection. Cornwall Council needs to be seen to be clear of undue influence and this, in my opinion, is the best way to achieve this.

UPDATE - There's some movement on this already. At this morning's scrutiny meeting, it was reported that a new group has been set up to look at the Council's communications and transparency policies. I have asked the group to look at this issue and they have agreed.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Labour representation in Cornwall Council Chamber is very short-lived

There were Labour representatives in the Cornwall Council chamber yesterday - but their presence was very short-lived.

As readers will know, no Labour councillors were elected in June 2009 (which came as news to Harriet Harman). But yesterday there was a small demonstration by students outside County Hall on the subject of the decision by the government to cut EMA - the educational maintenance allowance paid to 16-19 year olds from poorer families who stay in education. The demonstrators appeared to be a mixed bunch of Labour activists, Socialist Workers and anarchists and were joined by Labour candidate Jude Robinson.

As it happens, I agree with the demonstrators on the subject of EMA. Launceston has the lowest take up of post 16 education in Cornwall and I know that many of those who do study would struggle to do so without the EMA. There is no doubt that some who receive the payment do not need it, but the principle is a good one.

One person present and holding a placard wasn't so keen to talk however. My colleague Nathan Bale and I asked for his views but he refused to talk to us. It seemed a strange attitude to take for someone who was protesting outside County Hall but there you go. The rest of the people who had come along were keen to talk and we had a good discussion. We might not agree on everything, but on this subject we do.

When the full council meeting started, about six of the protestors came into the public gallery. Among them were at least two Labour activists. They held up protest leaflets for a while before deciding to start chanting just as my colleague Joanna Kenny rose to speak. They were hurriedly ushered out of the building.

It's a shame they decided to try to disrupt the meeting. I don't think they achieved anything except to lessen the likelihood that they will be listened to seriously in the future. I think they have a valid point in this case, but even if I disagreed I think it's good to hear a range of opinions from the public. Their actions just make it less likely that this will happen in the future.

Incidentally, I am told that one of the people ejected was the son of a senior councillor.

Looking forward to Camborne North polling day

Tomorrow is polling day in Camborne North following the resignation of Conservative Councillor Bill Jenkin who was arrested on sexual assault charges. This afternoon I've been in the ward delivering leaflets for the excellent Lib Dem candidate Anna Pascoe.

The by-election is only the second in Cornwall Council's short history and the first since the massive service cuts were announced by the Conservative led administration. It will therefore be seen by some as a judgment on the course of action that the administration has chosen to save money.

Although there are six candidates in total, my bet is that it will come down to just Anna or the Conservative. Whilst there were others who got a fair few votes in 2009, the general election last year was decided by just 66 votes in that area. The Lib Dems - in second place last time - look like the only serious challengers to the Conservatives.

Of course, it wouldn't be a by-election if there weren't a few slightly dubious tactics. As I arrived for my delivery round in the splendid Tehidy Park area, a Conservative deliverer tried to pretend that she was a Lib Dem who had already done the area and that I should therefore not bother. Fortunately, I knew different.

Cornwall Council £1 million short on parking income and set to raise charges even higher

Cornwall Council is set to demand an additional £1 million from motorists after failing to meet its parking income this year. The charge will add an average 20p to the cost of every car park visit. This extra cost will come on top of the already substantial price rises being demanded by the Conservative led authority.

Cornwall's motorists are facing a massive hike in the cost of parking in our towns and villages. The Conservative led council has made unreasonable demands about the amount of money that can be raised from car users. They view car parks as a massive cash cow which can be milked for as much money as possible.

Some of the hardest hit will be low paid workers in our towns who face a tripling in the cost of their season ticket prices.

Now we have discovered that an extra rise in parking charges is to be demanded by the Cabinet because of the failure to meet this year's income targets. The authority is £1 million below budget. That is a terrible indictment on this authority. It goes to show that if prices are too high then people simply will not pay to park in our town centres. We are already in that situation and the Cabinet's proposals will just make matters worse.

But what is even more shocking is that the Cabinet Member appears not to have been aware of the level of the shortfall until the last two weeks. If that is true then he is not doing his job properly. Cabinet members should be aware of how their services are performing and should be taking action to address under-performance at the earliest opportunity.

This is gross incompetence from the Cabinet Member and he should consider whether he is up to the task of running our car parks and highways services.

In order to make-up the current year's shortfall, we understand that the Conservatives plan to add the deficit to next year's parking take. That would add an average of an extra 20p to every parking charge. We do not believe that local people can afford to pay such charges and parking income will fall short once again.

Legally, if Cornwall Council wishes to change the parking charge plan they have to go through another full consultation. We believe that lower charges will encourage greater use and so the overall level of income will be higher. That option should also be given in the consultation.

The issue of car parking charges will now be discussed by the Council's Car Parking Panel on Friday before coming back to the Cabinet in February.

Cornwall Council slams coastguard cuts proposal

Cornwall Council has slammed the proposal by the Government to move coastguard services from Falmouth to Southampton.

The Falmouth centre - a recognised leader in the field - currently provides the regular coastguard cover for the Cornish coast from Looe round to Bude. The centre also provides co-ordination for international rescue efforts. The South East Cornwall section of coast is covered by coastguards based at Brixham - a centre which is also proposed for closure.

In what is billed as a cost cutting measure, the Government is proposing to move services to Southampton.

The Council backed a motion put forward by my colleague Joanna Kenny to lobby against the move on the basis of the expertise and local knowledge held by the Falmouth Centre as well as the fact that it is a modern equipped station and a move to Southampton is likely to cost, rather than save, funds. Speaker after speaker stood to condemn the proposals and, in the end, only one councillor voted against the motion.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Cornwall will lose weekly black bag bin collections says Cabinet Member

For the last couple of days I have been posting about Tory led Cornwall Council's upcoming decision on the future of waste collections. I have not been able to say what the plans are because the information was contained in pink (ie confidential) papers.

However at today's full council meeting, Cabinet Member Julian German confirmed that the proposal is to move to what he called 'managed weekly collections'.

This system involves the abolition of the weekly black bag collection. Instead, households will get a weekly collection of recycling and a weekly food waste collection. General rubbish will only be collected every two weeks.

The twin aims of the change will be to increase recycling rates and to save money. In the recent consultation, the council claimed that keeping weekly black bag collections would see an increase in costs. Today I pointed out that a new single contract covering the whole of Cornwall would actually see a cut in the current money spent. Cllr German admitted that this was true but claimed that the questionnaire referred to 'relative costs' - ie that money would be saved, but not as much as if weekly collections are abandoned.

In my opinion, the questionnaire was deeply flawed as it presented only two options - and a biased view of one of them. Whilst around 1900 people have responded, it seems that the majority claimed to live in bungalows or detached houses and to be married couples with no children - hardly a representative sample of the total Cornish population.

I agree that fortnightly collections together with weekly recycling would improve recycling rates and a food waste collection is a good idea, but around half of householders surveyed said that they would not use it. The proposal would also be a rats charter with vermin, seagulls and dogs attacking the bags which could be left outside for up to 14 days.

The public should have been given more of an informed choice allowing them to pick from weekly or fortnightly food, recycling and black bag collections. The survey should also have made clear the relative costs. In my opinion the Council flunked this test of genuine local democracy.

The final decision was due to be taken at tomorrow's Cabinet meeting but will now be on 31st January.

Cornwall Libraries 'not safe beyond this year'

Cornwall's 29 libraries are not safe beyond the coming financial year. This was the statement made by Council Cabinet Member Joan Symons at today's full council meeting and confirms what Liberal Democrats have been warning for some time - that branches may have to close in order to meet Tory budget needs.

As I have blogged previously, the Council wants to make two sets of savings from the libraries and one stop shops budget. For the coming financial year, the plans are to make savings by moving one stop shops into library buildings and by buying books in a different way.

But there is no idea about how to make the much larger savings in the following year. Today Cllr Symons was asked whether a plan had been formulated since her shoulder shrugging performance when questioned on her budget last month. Her response - to state categorically that she could not guarantee the future of any library branch beyond March 2012.

Cornwall's Liberal Democrats have consistently warned about the threat posed by the Tory budget to the library service and have made it clear that we would not close branches or cut mobile services.

Expecting a waitress to devote a month's pay to parking is 'reasonable' says Cornwall Council

The Cornwall Councillor in charge of parking issues has described the proposals to charge almost a month's take home pay for a season ticket as 'reasonable'.

At today's full council meeting, I pressed Cllr Graeme Hicks on the proposed parking charges which would see season ticket costs rise from £195 per year to £600. I told him about the Launceston waitress for whom £600 represents a month's take home pay and asked him whether he considered such a price to be fair.

In response to my points about this charge and the rise in the cost of hourly parking rates, Cllr Hicks also claimed that his aim was to equalise parking charges across Cornwall. In the past, prices in West Cornwall have traditionally been higher than in the East. What he fails to take account of, however, is the comparatively high availability of public transport options in the West as well as the range of other services which are provided in West Cornwall but which those of us in the East miss out on.

Cllr Hicks was keen to stress his outrage at the amount (£5 million per year) which is taken by the Government in the form of VAT and business rates from our parking services. However he rather devalued his case by presenting this as somehow new. Cornwall Council has been paying these charges for many years and, after 19 months in post, one would hope that Cllr Hicks would have realised this before. For the record, I agree that this money should not be claimed by Whitehall.

PS - It has now been confirmed that the final decision on parking charges has been postponed. This was meant to have been decided tomorrow but will now go to the cabinet meeting on February 16th. According to the email sent to councillors:

"new evidence has come to light and it is felt that it would be inappropriate for the Cabinet to make any decisions on recommendations made by the Panel when all facts were not available"

No clue is given as to what this new evidence might be.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Library closure threat - details in February

Cornwall Council's plans to save around a million pounds from the library and one stop shops budget were passed in December despite the opposition of the Liberal Democrats and many thousands of local library users.

We are concerned because the only plan that has so far been agreed by the Tory led council would see the closure of all but 9 of Cornwall's libraries. Although the authority claims that it wants to make the savings by other means, they have so far said that they have no idea how this will be achieved.

Today councillors were told that we will learn more about the plans in February.

The budget for next year demands savings of around £250,000. The administration says that it can achieve this through 'back office' savings such as a different way of buying books and through relocating some one stop shops into library buildings. We'll have to look at the details but, in principle, there is nothing wrong with making savings where the front line level of service is not affected.

But we will also get details about how they plan to make the much bigger £750,000 saving in the second year. This is the cut which we fear will mean the closure of some libraries - even if it is not as many as the twenty branches which were threatened in the original plan.

This will no doubt be of great interest to library users up and down Cornwall. More than 1000 in Launceston signed up to the Lib Dem campaign to save our local library and an even greater number signed up in Bodmin. Petitions are being collected in other towns as I type.

Cabinet plans for waste and parking in disarray?

Rumours reach me that Cornwall Council's ruling Conservative led administration have been forced to delay or abandon two of the key decisions set to be taken on Wednesday.

At the Cabinet meeting there was due to be a decision taken on the issue of waste. This may come as news to most people because the agenda item is listed as confidential under the title of 'service delivery'. No details of the proposals can be revealed, but Cornwall Council has recently consulted on moving to fortnightly waste collections. The full results of the consultation have not yet been prepared but it seemed that the Cabinet wanted to take the decision anyway and behind closed doors.

However it appears that some sense has been seen and the item is now said to be delayed until the Cabinet meets on 31st January.

I am also led to believe that the Cabinet paper on parking charges may also be deferred. This is an issue that has raised huge complaints in Launceston and across Cornwall. But the deferral might not be as good news as it seems. I am told that the reason for the delay is because the Cabinet actually wants more cash from parking - quite incredible!

Given that the legal officers have told me that only the consulted scheme can be implemented without a full further consultation, the Conservatives are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Kensey Foods caught up in German egg scare

Kensey Foods, one of the biggest businesses in Launceston has been caught up in the scare over eggs from Germany, some of which have been contaminated with dioxins. The affected eggs were mixed with uncontaminated eggs in Belgium before being brought into the UK.

Kensey Foods makes a range of products for some of the major supermarkets in the UK but the advice is that that there is no danger to health. Dioxins are poisonous to humans, but only when a large quantity builds up in the body over time. If you have eaten any of the products which may have been affected, then there is no need to be concerned.

The Food Standards Agency - which looks after the safety of food products sold in the UK said:

"There is no food safety risk from eating these products. The majority of products will have been sold and most have passed their 'use by' or 'best before' dates. Supermarkets are removing the small amount of products that are still in date."

This is clearly a difficult time for the staff at Kensey Foods. I am sure that they will take any action that is needed to make sure that all of their products are as safe as possible and they have my full support.

Loss of MCA tugs risking another Penlee?

Today saw the penultimate meeting of the Cornwall Sea Fisheries Committee (a new Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority is taking its place).

As part of the report from the Chief Fisheries Officer, we discussed the decision by the Government to get rid of the four MCA deep water tugs which patrol our coasts. One of the tugs covers the Western Approaches and is based in Falmouth Bay and Newlyn.

Coincidentally, at the same time as the Government was making its decision, the local tug went to the aid of the Athena, the massive factory fishing vessel which caught fire and had to be towed into Falmouth.

There was some concern raised at the committee today that the loss of the tugs will risk another Penlee type disaster. That's a pretty strong statement, but the experts genuinely believe that it is a risk.

There is no doubt that the MCA tugs will be replaced with commercial vessels. But these do not have the same powers as the government boats. If a vessel is in trouble and threatens our coasts then they have to take a line from an MCA tug to avert a disaster. But with commercial tugs there will be a cost to the owner of a stricken vessel and this is often the subject of a lengthy negotiation. Before this can be concluded, the vessel can be almost on the rocks. And some skippers will try to ignore trouble in order to avoid any costs.

Of course we all hope that future disasters will be avoided, but the fact that the MCA tug was called out to assist vessels on a regular basis suggests that its loss will be felt at some point in the future.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Cornwall Tories refuse to budge on parking plan

Belatedly, the agenda papers for next Wednesday's Cabinet debate on new parking charges have been published (click on Supplementary Agenda Pack 2). And, despite a vague hope that the Tories would listen to reason on the effects of the proposed price rises, the recommendations have not changed.

And so parking charges in Launceston will rise by an average of 42% and season ticket costs will go up from £195 per year to £600.

As I have blogged before, the likely impact will be devastating on our town's local economy. It won't just be the case in Launceston. Towns across East Cornwall will be severely hit. Not only will visitors and shoppers be priced out of using the town centre car parks, but shop workers will have to pay treble the current price simply to get to work.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Will Conservative Cornwall be going against Government advice on bin collections too?

This morning I posted about Cornwall Council's proposal to ignore Government advice on parking. Now ministers have issued guidance on bin collections and I wonder whether our local Conservatives will be ignoring this too?

The new advice is aimed at helping those authorities which have adopted fortnightly collections to move back to a weekly service. The issue has come to the fore because of the recent bad weather. Some parts of Exeter, which has fortnightly collections, have seen black bag rubbish piling up for four weeks without being collected.

In Launceston we have seen most homes miss out on collections for up to three weeks and so there will be a lot of sympathy for residents in Exeter.

As I posted just before Christmas, Cornwall Council has conducted a survey about waste collections and one of the questions relates to a move away from weekly black bag collections. The Cabinet has already approved a long term budget which includes this change and so I believe it is entirely possible that they will be trying to sneak this scheme through despite the new Government thinking.

The coalition government may be doing things which are unpopular, but they are also reversing a lot of the damage done by the former Labour government. It's just a shame that these advances are being ignored by our local Conservatives.

Oops - Cornwall going against Government advice again

Once again Cornwall Council is set to ignore Government advice and local people are likely to suffer as a result. This time, the issue is parking and small towns such as Launceston will bear the brunt of local Tories decision to put cash above communities.

As I have blogged many times in recent weeks, parking charges are set to rise hugely in our area and I believe that the impact will be devastating on local shops and businesses. The charges will hit both shoppers and shop workers. Shoppers will be hit by average charge rises of 42% and shop workers (often among the lowest paid local workers) will see permit charges rise from £195 per year to £600.

Yesterday, the Government confirmed that it sees the car as a necessary tool - especially in areas where there is poor public transport. The former Labour government seemed to be seeking to impose a public transport solution. In theory this was fine - I want to see much more use of public transport and I know that this is the wish of the Council too. But it fails in practice because of the lack of public transport in many rural areas (including North Cornwall). The Labour view seemed to have been an urban-centric view where there are buses or trains every few minutes making the need for a car much more of a luxury than a necessity.

The new view - that people in rural areas rely on cars - goes on to say that we must therefore make sure that drivers can use their cars without unnecessary penalty. Taxes on petrol are high enough already (and went up again this morning with the VAT increase) and we should not be lumping yet more costs on motorists by imposing exorbitant parking fees.

Yet Cornwall Council appears determined to run contrary to this policy by viewing town centre parking as a cash cow which can be milked at will. The Council's Cabinet will be having the final say on parking charges next week. I very much hope that they will by then have read the new government policy and decide that (for once) the man from the ministry does know best.