Thursday, 24 February 2011

Guido gets it wrong on ERS and electronic voting

Guido Fawkes has written a post about the links between the Yes campaign in the referendum on a fairer voting system and the Electoral Reform Society. He makes great play about the Society's supposed stance in favour of e-voting in public elections.

As evidence, Guido quotes from a report which I helped to write when I worked for ERS. He quotes the view of the Society at that point that e-voting and other new technologies could help to increase turnout.

That was indeed the Society's view before pilots took place in a variety of local elections across the UK. However the evidence of the pilots was that such alternative methods didn't increase turnout and so the Society changed its view. Unfortunately, Guido chooses simply to quote from the old document and to ignore the updated policy.

Of all the methods trialled, electronic voting, telephone, text and online voting all failed completely to increase turnout which was their stated aim. The only method which did increase turnout was all-postal voting in which every elector was sent a ballot paper to their registered address. Unfortunately this opened the way to widespread fraud and so was dropped as a result.

ERS hoped that new voting technologies would increase turnout in public elections. We were proved wrong and so we changed our policy.

As Keynes said:
When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

Primesight? - prime eyesore

One of the first campaigns I launched in Launceston was to get the poor state of the advertising hoardings on Western Road sorted. Now the site is a mess once again and I am trying to get the company responsible to take action.

The original hoardings were made of wood which had become rotten and was threatening to collapse and posed a risk to motorists. Eventually these were pulled down and replaced with new frames.

Unfortunately, although the frames themselves are still in good condition, the advertising posters on one of the boards are a complete mess and peeling off in large chunks. It does no credit to our town for visitors to drive past such a sight as they approach the Castle. I would also think that the other advertisers would not want their wares displayed next to such a mess.

The company that owns the site is called Primesight. On their website, they boast:

Operations are responsible for ensuring that all posters are displayed properly, in a timely manner, and that the surrounding site is left clean & presentable after installation.

The panels and the immediate area surrounding are cleaned on a fortnightly basis.

Regrettably, as far as Western Road is concerned, the company doesn't seem to be living up to its responsibilities. I've been in touch with them to ask them to take urgent action to clean their site up. I hope they will be doing so soon and I'll follow up if necessary.

My letter in yesterday's Times

Yesterday the Times published my letter in response to a feature they carried in Saturday's edition looking at possible billboard adverts on either side of the debate on the fairer votes referendum.

One of the 'No' campaign adverts suggested that Hitler would be in favour of changing the voting system. There are good arguments against a change in the way we vote (although I think the benefits outweigh these), but linking the change to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis is definitely not one of them.

My letter read:

Far from being an argument against electoral reform, Hitler's rise to power in 1930s Germany exemplifies the need for change (advertisers posters on each side of the AV debate, Saturday's paper).
Hitler may well have won several years earlier had the Weimar Republic used First-Past-the-Post. As a party with a large level of support - but never a majority in an election - the Nazis would have been ideally placed to take advantage of a system whereby winners emerge with 30-40% of the vote.
In the event, Hitler's rise to power was delayed by several, crucial, years.
It is perhaps no wonder that leading Nazis during trips to Britain expressed their envy of the UK system in such terms.


Alex Folkes

Mind you, the real adverts which have been designed by the No campaign are hardly much better than the Hitler mock-up.

Note - The Times website operates behind a paywall, hence the lack of a link.

Cornwall Council spent £50,000 backing Plymouth World Cup bid

Cornwall Council wasted £50,000 of taxpayers' money backing the bid to bring the World Cup to Plymouth, it has been revealed. The decision to spend the money was taken by Council Leader Alec Robertson and was not subject to scrutiny. It was revealed after a freedom of information request by the West Briton.

I'm horrified that anyone could have thought that spending such a large amount of money on this project was worthwhile. Of course it would have been good to have the World Cup in England and to have some matches played in Plymouth. But, even if the bid had been successful (we only got two votes) such spending could not have been justified.

At the time when the decision was made, we already knew that Cornwall was facing huge cuts. We are cutting a total of £170 million and losing around 2,000 staff. Among the cuts are a 40% slashing of the budget for supporting people who are homeless or vulnerably housed, a £4 million cut in the adult care budget and the loss of more than 90 hours per week in our library service.

Even within the leisure service there are huge cuts. The future of Camelford Leisure Centre and Bude Sea Pool remain uncertain in spite of funding being extended for an additional year in response to uproar in the local areas at the original plans.

Any of these frontline services would have been a far better use of the money than throwing £50,000 at a campaign that had little chance of success.

For all that the Conservative led Council bang on about the need to tighten our belts and for everyone to make sacrifices, it seems that there is no limit to the fripparies on which they are prepared to waste our money.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Parking call-in accepted

The Liberal Democrat request for a 'call-in' of the decision made by Cornwall's Cabinet last week on huge parking increases has been accepted by the Council.

This means that, for the first time, the Environment and Economy scrutiny committee will get to discuss one of the biggest and most controversial decisions made by Cornwall Council to date.

The meeting will be held next Thursday at 2.30pm and, if necessary, Cabinet will meet the next day to consider any recommendations from the scrutiny committee.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Met Police and their social contacts with News of the World

Paul Waugh has written about the social contacts between the Metropolitan Police and the News of the World at the time when the Met were meant to be investigating the phone hacking scandal.

As Lib Dem Assembly Member Dee Doocey has said:

"I find it quite extraordinary that when allegations about illegal phone hacking relating to the News of the World were still unresolved that the Met Commissioner thought it was appropriate to be regularly dining with the News of the World and News Corporation. Imagine the outcry there would be if the Commissioner was seen dining with a member of the public who was the subject of a police investigation."

Another aspect which occurred to me - when the News of the World uncovered the alleged plot by Pakistan cricketers to deliberately bowl no balls, it was their legal duty to hand that information over to the Police. But why did Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick have to attend the meeting? AC Dick is one of the three top police officers in London. Surely this sort of thing would normally be handled by detectives at inspector or superintendent rank.

It seems unlikely that the Met decided that they needed to be so cosy as to send along such a senior officer. Is it the case that the NotW demanded the presence of such a senior officer before they would hand over the evidence? And does that not show just how out of balance the relationship between the paper and the Met had become?

Liberal Democrats seek 'call-in' of Cornwall parking decision

Three of my Liberal Democrat colleagues on Cornwall Council have asked for a 'call-in' of the Conservative led Cabinet's decision to raise parking charges. If approved, the decision will be reviewed by the Council's Environment and Economy scrutiny committee.

The three councillors involved are Edwina Hannaford, Jackie Bull and Ruth Lewarne representing wards in East, Mid and West Cornwall.

Edwina told me:
We believe that the decision made by Cabinet was wrong on a number of grounds. They failed to take account of the needs of older people, failed to assess the impact on all of Cornwall or on town centres, relied on baseless assessments, and ignored the evidence from season ticket holders that trebling the cost would stop them buying tickets.

We are therefore asking for the scrutiny committee to have the right to look at the proposals, call for the missing evidence and, if justified, send it back to Cabinet to think again.

When the Cabinet considered the impact on the poorer people, they looked only at five areas in the West of Cornwall, ignoring the effects of even higher increases in towns like Liskeard and Launceston in the East. We believe that this was wrong and discriminatory and fails to take account of the lack of public transport in the East including the absence of trains in North Cornwall.

The Cabinet also refused to look at the likely impact on our town centres. We believe that much higher charges will have a huge impact on local shops and businesses and could send many to the wall. The Council talks in its business plan about working closely with the private sector, yet they have not even been considered in this decision.

Some of the hardest hit will be low paid workers who will see the cost of their season ticket treble in two years in many areas. The officers gave assurances that they were 'confident' that all season ticket holders would continue to buy them. But we know this is simply not true and that the Cabinet based its decision on assertions that have no basis in fact.

We believe that the option of freezing parking charges should also have been considered. It would have been fair to motorists and the Council knows how much they will get with this option. The Conservative proposals are uncosted and we believe they will fail to make anything like the money they want whilst forcing people out of work in the process.
A 'call-in' can only be granted on very limited legal grounds and the decision as to whether this will be allowed rests with legal officers at the Council. If agreed, a meeting of the E&E scrutiny committee must be held within 11 days.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Cameron lands in Egypt - a high risk, no win strategy

Prime Minister David Cameron has arrived for a short visit in Egypt as part of a middle east tour originally meant to boost arms sales according to Conservative Home.

Being the first foreign leader to visit since the fall of Mubarak is clearly an advantage, but Mr Cameron risks sending the wrong messages both at home and abroad.

With the future direction of the country uncertain and the army in power, too much celebration or friendliness from the PM could be interpreted by the countries interim leaders as an endorsement of their regime. It would also horrify the protestors of Tahrir Square who see their transition to a new government as being only part complete.

Yet a failure to acknowledge the profound changes that have begun in Egypt would be equally damaging. There is much fear among Middle East reformers that the US and UK would much prefer the old guard - stable dictatorships who supported the 'war on terror'. Too much tight-lippedness from the PM would have failed to give credit where it is due and might be seen across the wider region as an endorsement of the current regimes.

One option would have been for Cameron simply to have missed out on visiting Egypt altogether. But this would have been seen as dodging the issue and would have been taken by both sides as a failure to recognise their cause.

UPDATE - My take on the press comments made by the PM in Egypt is that he handled himself about as well as he could have in the circumstances. But the key is whether the comments match what he said in behind closed doors meetings.

New Library hours across Cornwall

Cornwall Council has announced the new opening hours for libraries across Cornwall - as promised last week.

The new hours for Launceston Library as from April 18th will be

Monday 9.30-5.00
Tuesday 9.30-6.30
Wednesday 9.30-5.00
Thursday Closed
Friday 9.30-5.00
Saturday 10.00-1.00

Overall this is a loss of 2.5 hours of opening each week. That is very regrettable and the loss of after work opening three days each week is bad news. But it is good that no libraries have been closed at this stage and that the Council has listened to local concerns over the original proposals to switch the closed day and only open at 10am in the morning.

I hardly think that the overall loss of more than 90 library hours each week can be described as 'an exciting new service' as the Council's Orwellian phraseology puts it. Management changes are hardly exciting, nothing being done is new and the level of service has dropped.

What is not made clear in the Council's press release is that the future of our libraries is still far from safe. The Cabinet member has repeatedly said that no library in Cornwall is safe beyond March 2012 and there is still no detail about how they plan to save more than half a million pounds next year.

UPDATE: The BBC Cornwall website covers the story here.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Road Closure - Ridgegrove Lane

Ridgegrove Lane will be closed near the junction with Dutson Road from March 14th to 18th to allow new water connections to be made.

This closure will be a significant inconvenience to residents of Ridggrove Lane and for those who use the road as a way of avoiding the congestion of Newport.

Local residents should receive a formal notice about the works and the diversion will be via Dutson Road and Homeleigh.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Speed warnings on Dutson Road

As I blogged last week, speeding on Dutson Road is a considerable problem and is a significant danger to pedestrians using the road.

The proper solution is going to take a while to come about. It will probably require a by-pass or the introduction of a one way system to massively cut the amount of traffic using the road.

However, I have been keen to come up with a solution to provide some relief in the short-term. The answer that council engineers and myself have come up with, having talked to local residents, is a set of rumble strips on the road. These will be a textured surface which, if you are travelling at a reasonable speed, will hardly be noticed. But for drivers going at excessive speed, they will cause a vibration in the car and act as a warning to slow down.

The right position for these seems to be just up the hill from the start of Dutson Terrace so that they will cause minimal disruption for residents.

If you have a view on this proposal, please get in touch using the contact details on the right.

Potholes, potholes, potholes

Over recent weeks a large number of potholes have opened up in town. Thankfully, the Council has been quick to fill them in, but if you know of any that haven't been dealt with, please get in touch.

The heavily potholed road outside Tesco has been treated temporarily and is on the schedule for proper re-surfacing in the near future.

The potholes on Western Road as you approach the Pennygillam roundabout are scheduled to be permanently treated tomorrow (Friday).

Council listens over library opening hours

Changes to Cornwall library opening hours have been presented to the Communities Scrutiny Committee. The final decision will be made by Communities Director Gill Steward later today and will be published on Monday.

I'm not able to write about the details because they need to be sent to staff first, but what I can say is that I believe the Council has listened to local concerns about prescriptive opening hours, timings and closed days and has modified the original proposals accordingly. I'll blog with the full details on Monday.

The level of local consultation - whilst not perfect due to the short timescale - is in contrast to the public engagement carried out of parking changes. With libraries the original centralised plan has been substantially modified. With parking the desire to impose a rigid 'one size fits all' system has led to a bad scheme which will significantly harm local communities.

The final Libraries result is still regrettable in that opening hours are to be lost. But it is a heck of a lot better than it might have been and credit should be given to officers who were prepared to listen to local concerns. One particular concern that was heeded was the proposal in the original document to open most libraries no earlier than 10am. Many communities pointed out that libraries are often used by parents after they drop their children at school. Delaying the opening time until 10 would most probably have lost their custom. I proposed that we consider at least one 'early opening' at 8.30am or 9am per week and this will be considered during the next review.

The other key decision that has been made is the integration of Registration and the One Stop Shops with the library service. A plan is being developed which will see many One Stop Shops moving into library premises and the plan is to seek to incorporate registration officers as well.

During the discussion on libraries I did manage to secure some assurances. The Council will make sure that cash payments will continue to be accepted in One Stop Shops as they are now. For many people, cash is the only way they can manage their money and, although it may be quicker and easier for the Council if payments are made online or by card, this doesn't suit everyone and it is important that cash facilities continue.

People needing to register a death do not want to have to queue in a busy and, sometimes, noisy place. They want and deserve to be treated with dignity. So the current appointment system will continue and staff will ensure that people registering deaths are treated compassionately.

I also secured a promise that, when the One Stop Shops move, they will work to the opening hours of the library they are based in. This might mean a slight loss of hours overall, but will mean that they are open into the evening at least one day per week and on Saturday mornings. This is a huge step forward and something I have been arguing for since I got elected.

Finally, I secured a pledge that the buildings would continue to be first and foremost a library service. It is great that the Council is looking to expand the range of activities that take place in our libraries - especially welcoming voluntary groups in. But I am concerned that with the integration of One Stop Shops, registrars and, possibly, other services, that the basic library function might be shunted aside.

The only disappointment was that, despite the proposed changes and the savings that the Council wants to achieve, the officers refused to give a guarantee that there would not need to be more cuts if the process could not be achieved as quickly as they want. There is a some leeway built in but if the process is delayed then the costs will have to be made up somehow and further cuts to hours cannot be ruled out entirely.

Stadium for Cornwall - images published

Sketches of the proposed Stadium for Cornwall have been published by the West Briton. The drawings show a possible 10,000 seater facility near Truro.

Apparently the drawings have been made by The Miller Partnership, the company engaged by Cornwall Council to investigate the feasibility of the stadium project. A spokesman for The Miller Partnership said that the Council has had this study since December but is not planning to publish it for a number of weeks. This is curious as we were told that it would be ready for public inspection (and debate) by now.

Apart from the drawings themselves (which show a four stand facility) the other revelation in the publication is that there are plans for a hotel on the site but that this is not shown on the drawings.

I make no comment on the drawings as we need sight of the full feasibility study to judge them in context and we do not yet know how the plans are expected to be financed.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Town Hall Pay

Eric Pickles has come up with another great wheeze - subjecting the pay deals of all local government employeess who get over £100,000 a year to a vote of all councillors.

Unlike the LGA, I'm all for it.

I think most councillors accept that we need to pay quite a lot to get people of top quality to run council services. But that does not mean that we need to pay over the odds. I'm certain that, if implemented nationwide, we could still get top notch people with the right experience to do a first rate job.

When Cornwall Council became a unitary authority, the old County Council and six districts merged into one. We went from around 33 top officers to just six. That move alone saved millions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

But what happened next was that all six got whacking pay rises compared with the previous holders of the jobs. In some cases, it was quite right that there should be some increase on the previous rate due to the increase workload and responsibilities. In the case of the Chief Exec, for example, the post was no longer simply responsible for county council services but for a much bigger organisation dealing with parking, leisure, housing and all the other old district functions.

But was the scale of the pay rise justified? The former Chief Exec of the County Council was on about £150,000. Yet the new Chief Exec earns £200,000 (it should be noted that he has taken a voluntary 5% pay cut but is still entitled to claim the full whack if he wants). Was this huge rise justified or should a balance (perhaps at £175,000) have been struck?

And what about those jobs which had little changed? The former director of adult care was responsible for adult social services across Cornwall. The new director of adult care has virtually the same role. Yet there was a massive pay hike with the formation of the new authority.

It may well be that in some areas where there is a shortage of candidates, the council will want to offer a higher than normal pay package to secure the best rather than take second rate.

But the norm should be packages a step below the current levels and I think that having a more open process - including the approval by full council of the pay level - is a step in the right direction. This will become particularly necessary in years to come when the next tier of officers (heads of service) start to edge up to, and above, the £100k mark.

I acknowledge, of course, that four of the six directors in Cornwall Council were appointed by the Implementation Executive which was largely run by Lib Dems. I think they got it wrong.

None of the foregoing should be seen as a comment on the qualities of the individual postholders here in Cornwall. Each is perfectly entitled to seek the maximum return for their undoubted skills. It is the system that needs changing, not the current office holders.

Parking charges - taking legal advice

It is certainly not the end, but it may be the beginning of the end of the long debate about parking charges across Cornwall, and in Launceston in particular.

Cornwall Council's Cabinet this morning agreed the new set of charges that will apply from the beginning of April. In doing so, they ignored the protestations of thousands of local residents including many who attended the meeting to make one last push for fairness.

The new charges will see average rises of more than 45% for those who pay by the hour and the season ticket prices will rise from £195 to £400 next year and then £600 the year after. This last was, in fact, a slight concession as the original recommendation was to go straight to £600.

What is more, the proposed drop to 50p in the first hour rate has been abandoned and will now stay at 70p.

At the meeting I spoke to make a last ditch plea to abandon the proposed changes. Speaker after speaker had made the case that the new charges were not appropriate for their area. I agreed with them that the proposals do not take into account local factors. I asked for a freeze in charges pointing out that, whilst this would mean we would not hit our income target, the Council already knows it will not meet this target next year and is taking a much greater risk by imposing much higher costs on motorists.

I also pointed out that the 'equalities impact assessment' was woefully deficient. For a start, it was based on the original proposals and not on those that the Cabinet ultimately agreed. In addition, in looking at the economic impact, it concentrated on five areas of West Cornwall which are suffering far lower price rises. No account was taken of the impact on any part of North Cornwall.

Nevertheless, the new charges have been agreed, so what next...

- First, I am seeking to 'call-in' the decision on the basis of inadequate information and lack of consideration of key issues and representations. I have a meeting with a legal officer to discuss this tomorrow.

- Second, a group of local members will be getting together with the Town Council and with local traders to discuss what a fairer charging policy might look like. If we can convince Cornwall Council that they can make the same amount of money as before with a different charging scale and changes in hours then we may have a hope of success.

Maybe it's not even the beginning of the end. Maybe just the end of the beginning?

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A bed-time thought

To the Conservatives and Independents on Cornwall Council who seemed happy (smug in some cases) about the prospect of cutting support for homeless people by 40% whilst paying someone £2,000 per day to write a report which you binned and paying £5,000 to send the Chief Exec to New York...

just watch tonight's Eastenders.

It may be a soap, but the issues it is covering with Heather's story are real for people up and down the country, including here in Cornwall.

Council Leader signed blank cheque for Sir John

Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson effectively signed a blank cheque for Sir John Banham, the would be Chair of the Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership who is being paid £2000 a day despite his proposals being consigned to the bin.

At full council today, Cllr Robertson made it clear that the appointment of Sir John was made by the private sector without any council involvement. He also explained that he had not been involved in determining the payment that Sir John would receive but nevertheless signed off the final amount - a staggering £2000 per day. His only defence was that it wasn't more!

How can it be right that a few select business people - ignoring the concerns of the Cornish Business Forum which represents many small business people - should have been able to pick who they wanted and expect the taxpayer to pick up whatever salary they decided.

The Council's handling of the LEP has been a complete mess. The appointment of a chair should have been made by the private sector with council involvement from the start. And if the council had worked with him as soon as he was appointed - instead of simply allowing him to go off and write whatever prospectus he liked - then we wouldn't have got to the embarrassing position of having to bin the document as being totally unsuitable. And council taxpayers should never have been put in the position of paying £2k per day (a total of £45,000 so far).

Council considering moving Launceston Foyer to Penzance

One other issue to come out of the debate on Supporting People today came from the Cabinet Member in response to my question about the future of Launceston Foyer.

The foyer network across Cornwall provides supported housing to young people who would otherwise be homeless. The benefits are clear - the young people stay clear of drugs and excessive alcohol and they are helped into education, training and work. There is also an advice service for young people who are vulnerably housed.

The foyers are also at risk of closing because of the 40% cuts. I asked for some reassurance that they will be able to carry on their work. What I got in return was a statement that the foyer network was not evenly distributed across Cornwall and that some may be relocated to areas without them including Penzance.

I know that towns like Penzance would make excellent use of a foyer and there are people there who genuinely need the service. But surely we should not be turfing vulnerable young people in Launceston out onto the street in order to provide it. Launceston foyer has, until recently when they began worrying about the cuts, been completely full and there is a proven need for its services. How can anyone sitting behind a desk in Truro decide that people in Penzance need this service more than people in Launceston?

That sinking feeling - Cornwall to cut supporting people fund by 40%

This was a depressing Council meeting. The major item on the agenda was the budget and that debate focussed on one particular service - supporting people.

We had the emergency budget back in December and myself and my Lib Dem colleagues made clear our opposition to a number of proposals then. We proposed a range of amendments which were all defeated by the Conservative/Independent coalition. Our concerns over these areas - libraries, adult care and leisure services in particular - remain, but we knew there was no point in trying to resurrect the issues only to be defeated again.

And so we concentrated on the supporting people service, new details of which have been emerging over the past weeks. We asked the Council to reject the budget in order to allow the Cabinet to think again about the proposed cuts.

During the debate we put forward the reasons for a rethink. We aren't opposed to any cuts at all in the service. Providers have indicated that they are able to cope with a 5% (perhaps even a 10%) cut in their funding and yet still provide the same level of service. But we believe that a 40% cut will lead to people being forced out onto the street. Even Eric Pickles is in favour of spending money on Supporting People as for every £1 spent a council will save £5 or £6 down the line. Cornwall Council is in favour of 'invest to save' projects and this looks like a prime example.

The Conservatives and independents raised a number of arguments against our proposal. There was the straw man argument that we would have to cut care for older people as a result when in fact we have argued all along that the money should come from the Council's £127 million of reserves. There was also a rather baffling argument that we must cut now to stop inflation taking its toll on our services. Cabinet Member Armand Toms - someone I really believe cares for the people that Cornwall Council helps - promised a presentation on his plans when they are fully worked out. When pressed, he admitted that if councillors do not like them then there is nothing we can do. Finally, some Tories claimed that we would be seeking to raise council tax to cover the additional costs. The Lib Dems have never proposed this. We know the money can be got from reserves and that there is no point in raising council tax anyway as the Government will simply take an equal amount away from us in grants.

And so the cuts will happen. Whilst apparently 57% of SP providers have already signed up for the cuts, no details were available on the service cuts that will be the inevitable result and nor were there details on what will happen to the people helped by the 43% of providers who have so far not signed up.

All in all, it was a very depressing debate and I worry about the consequences on people who do not have a secure roof over their head.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sleep out to save Supporting People services

Last night I was one of approximately 80 people to sleep rough outside County Hall in protest at Cornwall Council's plans to slash the supporting people budget by 40%. The supporting people service funds accommodation for homeless people as well as advice and care at home and projects such as the Foyer Network.

There is a dispute about the amount of money we have received from Government for supporting people. The raw figures suggest we have got a similar amount to last year but there are effects such as damping (broadly speaking - the Government feels Cornwall gets too much money and takes some back) and a random extra grant to take into account. What is clear to me, however, is that our grant from Government has not been cut by anything like 40% and we cannot continue to provide the levels of service we do now if we are to impose such a draconian cut.

And so I was keen to join last night's protest alongside fellow Lib Dem councillors Ann Kerridge and Derris Watson and Lib Dem MP Stephen Gilbert. Other rough sleepers were some of the service providers and their clients - people who have experience of sleeping rough for long periods, not just a single night. There were also a further 50 or so people who came along to support the campaign but did not stay the night.

The experience was illuminating. We had many facilities that true rough sleepers don't enjoy. We had the acquiescence of the Council itself which allowed us to stay under part of the Council building, we had portaloos provided by Brandon Hire, tea and coffee provided by the couple who run Cosgarne Hall's kitchen and, most crucially, the support of John Coventry who runs Cosgarne and who made sure we were all safe and well throughout the night. Real rough sleepers have little in the way of these services and often suffer as a result.

It was really valuable to be able to talk to the people who run homeless services in Cornwall as well as some of the people who use them. I learned a huge amount about the problems they face and became more determined than ever to seek to overturn the budget cut.

We arrived between 6 and 11pm and bedded down around midnight. I can't say it was easy to get to sleep, even with 79 bodies generating heat around me. We had managed to pick a night when temperatures fell below freezing and layers of clothes and sleeping bags didn't quite keep the edge off.

I suppose I slept about three hours overall and woke up for good at 6am.

It was not an enjoyable experience, but it was very enlightening. I know that I've got a warm bed in a safe and secure house to go back to tonight. An estimated 125 people in Cornwall won't have that option tonight and, if the proposed 40% budget cut is approved by full council tomorrow, then that number can only grow.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Boscastle Parking Meeting

This afternoon I was invited by my colleague Glenton Brown to come to a meeting with residents and businesses in Boscastle to discuss the impact of the proposed parking changes on their village.

Boscastle is predominantly a tourist venue, but the car park there is also used by locals and by people who work in the dozen or so businesses in the harbour area. As anyone who has been there know, it is also incredible hilly and has just a single car park.

The main message to come out of the meeting was the anger at the lack of involvement of local people and the parish council in the decisions that have been taken affecting the area. As with other areas in North Cornwall, there is an overall increase in the hourly parking rates as well as a huge increase in the cost of a season ticket.

The 'one size' fits all nature of the proposed changes are simply not right for Boscastle in the view of locals. The proposal is to charge from 9am but to finish charging at 4pm. That might be right for some areas, but is wrong for this village where locals tend to use the shops early and tourists arrive later in the day and stay into the evening. The village is therefore asking for a reconsideration of the charging hours to start (and finish) later. There was even a consensus that the overall charging period could be made longer - so long as the charges were fair.

The other main point being made is that, whilst the tourist economy might be a little more robust than the amount that locals can afford, this should not be an excuse to squeeze visitors until the pips squeak. Cornwall relies on repeat visitors and bad news travels fast.

As I have said before, parking is not a cash cow. You cannot demand a certain amount from the service and expect to receive it automatically. But you also have to make sure that proposals are right for the local area. Dictating parking charges from Truro is not the right way to go about things. It may take slightly longer, but talking to town and parish councils will bring a fairer result and might even lead to a higher overall income at the end of the day.

A number of people from Boscastle will now be travelling to Truro next Wednesday to lobby councillors before the Cabinet makes the final decision on parking charges.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sleep out at County Hall

This Sunday, I'm taking part in a sleep out at County Hall in Truro to highlight the impact of the the cuts to Cornwall's Supporting People budget and the effect they will have on homeless people in Cornwall.

The government allocates a budget for this work (although it is no longer 'ring-fenced') but the Council has cut our local budget by 40%. Whilst the Council Leader claims that the same work can still be done for less money, Adult Care Cabinet member Armand Toms is more honest in admitting that it will be the entire programme which will be affected.

I am concerned that the effect in our area (and across Cornwall) will be severe. There is a danger to the future of the Launceston Foyer which provides supported accommodation to young people who are at risk of being homeless and who are likely otherwise to turn to drink, drugs or crime. The foyer also provides and advice service and helps lead young people into training and employment. I'm asking a question about the future of the foyer network at full council next Tuesday.

The supporting people budget also helps people living in their own homes, making sure that they are accessing the full range of support they need (and are entitled to), that they are properly cared for and that they can get out and about. Many people are worried that they are going to be left high and dry.

I'm happy to support the sleep out which is being organised by John Coventry who works at the Cosgarne Hall facility in St Austell. As well as myself, Lib Dem councillors Ann Kerridge, Derris Watson and Roy Taylor will be there as well as a number of others.

Road Closures in Launceston - UPDATED

Over the next couple of weeks there will be two road closures which will affect residents in the Chapel area of Launceston.

Upper Chapel will be closed in part from 21st to 25th February to allow for a water main to be repaired.

Western Road - the section at the bottom of Meadowside in the 'triangle' - will be closed from 28th February until 4th March for highway improvement works. This won't affect the main road itself.

UPDATE - the latter closure has been extended for a week until Friday 11th March.

Diversion routes will be put in place for both closures.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Dutson Road hedges being destroyed by careless driving

This morning I went with local residents to view the hedges along Dutson Road where there is clear evidence that the hedges are being destroyed by cars and lorries.

As regular readers will know, more than one in four drivers using this road exceeds the speed limit and the road is often too narrow for two large vehicles to safely pass. As a result, it seems that a lot of them are hitting the hedges.

The photos show some of the damage caused with the earth ripped away and some of the stonework also dislodged. Apart from the damage to vehicles, this will also start to bring down the hedges themselves. You can tell that it is cars and lorries causing the damage (rather than some other cause) by the tyre prints visible in the top photo.

I have asked the Council to consider urgently what can be done to repair the damage and prevent cars from speeding as well as asking the local Police to undertake some speed camera work in the area.

Customer Service

A while back I noticed that the power cable for my computer was not working properly. It's a relatively new Macbook and I use it for everything.

So I went to Stormfront in Truro where I had bought it and they confirmed that the lead was faulty. But they couldn't offer to change it or to order me a new one without sending the old one to Exeter for 'further testing'. They told me that I would be without it for around two weeks.

Given that the lead would work intermittently and that I can't afford to be without it for more than the 8 hours charge that the computer holds, I suggested that this wasn't good enough. I needed to hold onto it until the new one arrived.

Could they lend me another cable until the new one arrived? Nope. Could they not order a new one without sending away the old on the basis that they knew where the fault lay? Nope. In both cases they said that their 'policy' did not allow it.

So today I drove to Exeter and went to the Apple Store there. The staff member checked the lead and within 30 seconds was satisfied that this was where the fault lay. He grabbed a new one off the shelf and handed it over. I was in and out within two minutes.

Many thanks to the Apple staff in Exeter, but it was really annoying to have faced such a brick wall in Truro.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Stadium for Cornwall - now the Council says it is happening

The local press is reporting that the Stadium for Cornwall has been given 'a shot in the arm' by the commitment from the owner of the Cornish Pirates to fund a facility for a guaranteed 10 year period.

The Cabinet member is quoted as saying that:

"positive discussions have taken place with our partners and their commitment to working with us to deliver a venue that will promote sporting excellence in Cornwall."

Bear in mind that the Council has expressed its concerns about the plans by refusing to allocate any funding for the coming year and councillors were told that no deals have yet been done on the subject.

How this squares with the description of our 'partners' and 'delivering a venue' is beyond me.

As I have said before - if a private company or individual wants to move ahead with a stadium then good luck to them. But I do not think that Cornwall Council should be using taxpayers' money to fund such a project. Reading between the lines on Mr Evans' statement, a stadium would still need money to be built and for running costs after the initial 10 year period.

It sounds to me like the Council is pressing ahead with this project deaf to the views of the majority of elected councillors.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Not to AV campaign resorting to lies and personal attacks

You can tell that the No to AV campaigners are getting desperate. They are resorting to lies and personal attacks in the hope of winning May's referendum.

There is a case to be made against changing the voting system (although I think that the arguments in favour are far stronger). But Tim Montgomerie is determined to play the man not the ball in his post entitled 'AV can be defeated if voters go into the polling booth thinking of Nick Clegg, broken promises and tuition fees' (snappy title).

Mr Montgomerie writes in the post and in a column in the New Statesman:

"Clegg wants to abolish first-past-the-post because he wants the Liberal Democrats to become the permanent power-brokers in British politics."

Really? Prove it.

Opponents of change might think that a consequence of change would be a smaller party permanently in a position of power. I happen to doubt that this will be the case as I think it is equally possible for the two largest parties to get together in some circumstances. But can anyone provide any evidence that this is the motivation behind Nick Clegg's backing for AV. Maybe he is actually telling the truth when he has set out time and again why he thinks that change to the voting system is actually fairer for the people of Britain as a whole.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Council videos and webcasting

BBC Cornwall has an article claiming that Cornwall Council videos are watched by just a few viewers each in some cases. I'm going to break from tradition and defend the Council over these.

The system isn't perfect (I'll come on to that later) but it's a good start.

Cornwall Council's online viewing comes in two forms. First there is the webcasting of full council and cabinet meetings. In the six months since they started, these have attracted more than 45,000 viewers.

I'm in favour of as much transparency and openness as possible, and these broadcasts allow people who cannot get to a meeting to see what is happening, especially in an area where it can easily take a resident an hour or more to get to County Hall. I wish more meetings were webcast but this is a great first step.

The webcasts are archived debate by debate so you can see who said what on a particular issue without having to troll through hours of discussions that you are not interested in. Of course, there are some tweaks that can be made to improve the service in the future. For instance, the webcasts of the biggest debates could be advertised on the front page. But there are up to 45,000 people who have heard what has been said and decided in their name who would not have done without the webcasts.

I'd also like to see more interactivity. Videos on Youtube, for example, allow people to leave comments. I think we should have such a facility for Cornwall Council's output too. I'd also like to see the key debates highlighted in more forums such as on Youtube and Facebook.

Is it a waste of money? The facilities are now in place and each webcast costs very little - a bit of staff time. So I would think that this openness is well worth the initial set up fees.

The second type of output are the Council's home produced videos. These are well shot and produced and short enough not to lose viewers' attention. They may not be the most exciting - they are essentially public information films - but they are done by one person using part of their working time.

Again, I'd like to see some sort of comments system put in place so that residents could raise comments about the videos themselves or about the services they advertise. But the principle (and quality) is excellent.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Library Opening Hours - update

I wanted to update the story I posted about library opening hours last week.

First of all an apology. We had previously discussed library hours at a scrutiny committee in closed session because the issue had not yet been raised with library staff. Of course, I did not break that confidentiality. Councillors last week got the detailed plans on papers which made no mention of the need for confidentiality. I assumed, therefore, that staff had been made aware of the plans. As it turned out, they had not and councillors received a hasty email asking them not to go public - but only two days after we were told of the plans and after I had blogged. This was a genuine mistake for which I apologise to staff as it is important that they should be consulted about the plans before they become public.

There has just been a round of consultation with councillors which I believe have proved very useful. I'm very grateful for assurances that the opening times for each library will be worked out based on what is sensible for the local area rather than a rigid central system.

I still think that the overall cut in hours is regrettable - but it is certainly better than closing branches. I hope something can be worked out for Fowey and Looe where the number of hours cut is 15 for each branch but I think that the impact elsewhere can be minimal if sensible opening times can be worked out.

We will also see the move of the One Stop Shop from Market House Arcade in Launceston to share the library building. This is a cost cutting move which hopefully won't adversely impact on services. Indeed, because the OSS is likely to change to library opening hours then we should see the facility opening on a Saturday morning and into the evening on one day per week - something I have been asking for since I joined the council.

Seven new parties set to launch in the UK

There will be up to seven new political parties campaigning for your votes by 2014. But these new parties won't be short-lived 'here today, gone tomorrow' affairs. They will be guaranteed 25 seats in the European Parliament elections. That is the proposal being put forward by a group of MEPs and apparently backed by all the main parties.

In what will surely dismay all but the hardiest pro-Europe campaigners, the EU could change the rules so that 25 MEPs will be elected from what is described as a 'pan European constituency'. In other words, these people will be elected by every voter in each of the 27 countries in the EU. We will still also elect MEPs from the regional constituencies we have at the moment.

The candidates for these 25 new seats will be standing under the label of the broad groupings that sit in the European Parliament. Although we elect Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour, UKIP etc members to the European Parliament, when they take their seats they sit under broad groupings with like-minded people from other countries. So a Conservative becomes a member of the 'European Conservatives and Reformists' group, a Labour MEP becomes a member of the 'Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats' and a Lib Dem becomes a member of the 'Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe'. All extremely catchy names which will trip off the tongue easily.

Altogether there are seven such groupings in the European Parliament and each would stand candidates so long as the list of 25 represents at least nine different countries.

And so it will be these groupings which will be campaigning (or not) for your vote come the 2014 European elections. As well as the already humungous ballot paper for the local vote, electors will be given a second ballot paper and asked to choose between the Euro-pudding* groupings.

I cannot imagine how these groupings will campaign. The parties will be doing all they can to get their own votes. It is likely to defeat their purposes if they are asking electors to vote for two different names on two different ballot papers.

And yet... even then I have over-simplified things. Because the Liberal Democrats may sit as part of the 'Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe', but the Euro-pudding party to which we belong is the 'European Liberals, Democrats and Reformers (ELDR)'.

I can imagine the fun on the doorstep:

"Hello, I'd like you to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament elections. But I'd also like you to vote for the European Liberals, Democrats and Reformers who will sit in the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe."

Because that will work.

I agree with the founding principles of the EU but it really does itself no favours if it proceeds with decisions like this.

* with apologies to Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.

UPDATE - the original version of this post appeared to read as though this is definitely happening. Now corrected. Apologies for heart attacks caused.