Thursday, 28 April 2011

A day with the residents of Kensey Valley Meadow

I've spent the day with the residents of Kensey Valley Meadow discussing a number of issues surrounding the formal adoption of their roads and drainage systems and also the possibility of putting a play area onto the estate.

As I've blogged countless times, residents have been very concerned about the apparent slow progress being made towards adoption and so I organised today's event to get some answers. I was delighted that a representative from Elan Homes, the developers, was there, as were council legal and highways officers, someone from South West Water and a council officer to discuss street names and numbering. Unfortunately, Cllr Graeme Hicks, the Cabinet Member for Highways who said he would be there did not appear.

I was very grateful to have the support and help of Mark and Rosemary, the Council's network team, and Anicka and her team from CN4C who brought in a bouncy castle, face painting and candy floss to draw the crowds.

The major resolution was a timetable for the adoption of different parts of the estate:

The upper (older) development is finished and ready to go to a shortened maintenance period before being formally adopted. Any remaining snags will be picked up in the next week, the maintenance period will then last three months and the formal adoption will be in early August.

Elan are still working on the newer (lower) development and expect to be finished in about three months. This will then need to go for a standard 12 month maintenance period before adoption and so we would expect everything to be done and dusted by August 2012.

The open spaces are to be adopted separately and we still don't have a timescale for this but everyone was confident this should not take any longer than for the lower development.

The drains and sewers would be adopted to the same timescale as the roads and South West Water have confirmed they are happy with the works being done on these.

One other bit of good news is that Elan have agreed to provide grit bins for the whole estate and I am working to make sure that the Town Council agree to re-fill and manage these.

There were numerous other issues raised which will require either the Council, Elan or the Police to take action and I'll be making sure that these happen. There will also be a full report on the play area consultation when this has been analysed.

Many thanks to everyone for coming along for what was a very successful day.

Doris decides to stand down

Doris Ansari has announced that she has decided to stand down as Leader of the Lib Dem group at County Hall.

Doris has been a formidable political animal for more than 40 years on Truro City Council, Carrick, Cornwall County Council and now the unitary authority. In that time she has been a great advocate for our party and was also a magnificent Chairman of the County for four years.

At one stage she sought to move 'up' to seek the selection for the Truro Parliamentary seat after the tragic death of David Penhaligon but was beaten to the nomination by Matthew Taylor. However, Westminster's loss was her the County's gain as she settled on assiduously working on issues - focussing mainly on education issues - across the Duchy.

Doris is pretty small in stature, but is a huge presence and, as my colleague George Edwards put it, probably knows more about the workings of County Hall than anyone else - especially Alec Robertson.

Doris is stepping aside to allow the new leader enough time to build a winning team to beat the Tories at the next election but she has done an immense amount to set us up and running and will be a huge support for whoever takes over.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

What Alec Robertson should do next...

If the rumours are to be believed, Alec Robertson has beaten off his opponent and will remain as Leader of Cornwall Council.

But what impact will the challenge to his leadership have and what should be his response going forward?

Obviously, as a member of the opposition, he is going to take anything I say with a pinch of salt, but it might be worth the Conservatives considering what other parties think as well as their own internal difficulties.

We don't yet know the level of opposition in the final reckoning, but I'm guessing that Fiona Ferguson amassed more than just a handful of votes. If so, Cllr Robertson will be under pressure to make some changes no his Cabinet - perhaps ditching Jim Currie or Lance Kennedy and replacing them with Ferguson herself, Chris Ridgers or Ray Tovey (the last two both very good performers blighted by the capacity to actually think things through).

The Leader will also be under pressure to communicate more with those outside the Cabinet. And if he does so then I hope that such communication is with councillors across the chamber rather than simply with his own backbenchers. To be fair to Alec, his communication is getting a lot better. But it still appears at times that there are only 10 people who matter in the council - the cabinet members - and the rest of us can go hang.

There are many who believe that the council would function a lot better if we returned to the old committee system of governance rather than the Cabinet model. I'm not yet totally convinced on this. But if Cllr Robertson wants to avoid the pressure to change systems as soon as the law allows, he will have to make this option work far better than it has to date. For all that the invitation is always there to visit the hallowed turf of the 4th floor at County Hall, there is perceived to be a definite 'them and us' situation with the Cabinet and Directors on the one hand and everybody else on the other.

The other major gripe of the Tory dissidents, as I understand it, is that the key decisions are taken by Chief Executive Kevin Lavery. What might help would be if we were to understand a bit more about what the current administration is actually trying to achieve. In 2009 we had the Tory manifesto. It didn't say a lot, but at least it existed. But when the Conservatives went into coalition with the Independents, we asked what their programme for government was. There was deafening silence until Cllr Robertson declared that it was the new Council's business plan. For the uninitiated, a Council's business plan is a horrendous tome of officer-speak which talks in broad platitudes about strategic vision. In short, it says almost nothing about anything that those who exist outside County Hall can get a handle on. It is also completely un-judgeable given that it sets almost no real targets.

Perhaps one of the benefits of this challenge to his leadership is that Alec will finally get around to explaining what his administration is all about. We can tell from what they have done that they are about sacrificing core front line services and vulnerable people in favour of 'new', 'innovative' and 'iconic' projects which might possibly turn a profit in ten years time but are utterly out of step with the real needs of residents at a time of economic hardship. Don't get me wrong, there are many good things which this administration has done. But they appear to have no vision other than the management-speak agenda of their beloved consultants.

I very much doubt that I would agree wholeheartedly with a Conservative-Independent vision if one were to be produced. But at least then the people of Cornwall could see where we are meant to be going and judge accordingly. As things stand, I think the Conservative backbenches are as mystified as the rest of us are and that, at the end of the day, is the root cause of the recent rebellion.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Radio Cornwall's AV debate - much heat, little light

This evening I was at County Hall for the recording of BBC Radio Cornwall's debate on the referendum to change the voting system. You will be able to hear the results in Laurence Reed's programme at Noon on Thursday, but for me there was lots of heat but very little light.

Of course, I'm biased in that I support the Yes camp. But for me some of the stand out or jaw dropping moments were:

- Former Labour MP Candy Atherton saying repeatedly that this was a 'miserable little referendum' and failing to recognise that her party had a pledge to hold just such a referendum in their manifesto.

- Current Conservative MP George Eustice claiming that those who back AV are 'nutters'. I hardly think it's becoming of an MP to dismiss political opponents in such terms. Feel free to disagree with our beliefs and views, but let's not drag the debate quite so low.

- George Eustice (again) attempting to claim that the Conservative Party Leader is elected by Firs-Past-the-Post. They aren't - it's a system called the exhaustive ballot which is a very long version of AV.

- William Dartmouth getting exasperated about people referring to his hereditary title and then doing so himself numerous times.

- Candy Atherton's put down of Lord Dartmouth saying that she wouldn't take lessons in democracy from a hereditary peer.

I won't attempt a 'we won, you lost' claim because I don't think either side really won. It might sound a little different when I hear it on the radio the second time round, of course.

Why cleaning beaches is a vital council task

This morning the Environment Scrutiny Committee of Cornwall Council met to discuss beach management. Not the most important task one might think. But, in my view, an absolutely fundamental role for the Council and one on which Cornwall's largest industry depends.

There are hundreds of beaches in Cornwall. Of these, many are owned or managed by the Council. Others are privately held but to which the public has access. The debate was about how much effort (and money) Cornwall council should put into keeping them clean.

I argued to the committee that it was important that Cornwall Council cleans its own beaches and also makes sure that many of the biggest private beaches are clean - even if it means us paying to make sure they are.

Tourism is the number one revenue generator for Cornwall. Whatever we might say about Cornwall being a venue for all sorts of activity, we are known as a venue with superb beaches. Whether visitors are coming for 'bucket and spade' summer holidays, surfing or walking the coastal path, they will spend a lot of their time on our beaches. And so our reputation as a destination will take a nosedive if we try to penny pinch and neglect them.

Many councillors made the same point. Cllr Bob Egerton talked about beaches being actual visits and compared them to the future projects such as the Stadium for Cornwall which, at the moment, is only hypothetically going to bring visitors and income to the Duchy.

As with so much else, at a time of recession, I think it is more important for the Council to concentrate on getting the basics right rather than having high blown ambitions.

The scrutiny committee agreed and passed quite a forceful resolution urging the Council to invest in the quality of our number one attraction.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Death of Tul Bahadur Pun

Very sad to hear of the death of Tul Bahadur Pun, a former Gurkha soldier and one of the figureheads of the campaign to gain settlement rights for veterans.

I was involved with the Gurkha campaign thanks to my friend Peter Carroll and took photos at many of their events.

The photo shows Pun meeting Nick Clegg prior to the march on Downing Street at which Pun and a number of his colleagues gave back their medals in protest at the refusal at that stage by the Labour Government to allow them to stay in the UK.

White tie is not morning dress

Sorry if this sounds like I'm turning into Emily Post, but I wish the media would stop illustrating the story about David Cameron and his apparent vacillations over what to wear to the Royal Wedding with the wrong images.

The debate is whether the Prime minister should wear a lounge suit (a business suit in modern parlance) or morning dress. The trouble is that media outlets such as the BBC and Conservative Home as well as others are insisting on using pictures of white tie and tails to illustrate the morning suit option.

At the top of this post is what morning dress actually looks like (as modeled by various royals).

Below are pictures used by the BBC and by Conservative Home:

To my mind, white tie and tails looks a lot more 'posh than standard morning dress. Cameron has the option of dressing down slightly by wearing a morning suit - the same style of tail coat, but with the coat, waistcoat and trousers all in the same colour, usually grey. Of course, if he went the whole hog and turned up with Ascot Cravat, kid gloves, spats and cane then the photographers might have a field day.

Cornwall to miss out on key electoral pilot as Government cuts funding

Cornwall will no longer be taking part in a key pilot scheme to make sure people are registered to vote as a result of the Government cutting funding for the project. Despite being judged to have made the best bid of any authority, the Government said they were prepared to give Cornwall only £70,000 of the £280,000 it would have cost to run the pilot.

The scheme in question was to be a data matching exercise which would have allowed Cornwall Council to have the data of a range of other public bodies such as the DVLA and Revenue and Customs checked. The aim was to find people who live in Cornwall and are entitled to register to vote but who have not done so. The Council estimates that there are currently around 22,000 such people.

The UK will shortly be moving to a system of individual voter registration rather than the one form per house system we use at the moment. That's good news because it will help combat fraud. But it does mean that some people are likely to fail to register. The data matching pilot would have helped councils to know how best to find the people who do not register.

Of course the pilot would also have helped to find out more about people who are second home owners and who should not be on the register in Cornwall.

I think it's really bad news that the Government has decided to short change this important scheme. It will still be going ahead in other areas, but sadly not in Cornwall.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Trust to save Camelford Leisure and Bude Sea Pool?

Great news for the future of Camelford Leisure Centre and Bude Sea Pool as Cornwall Council's Cabinet has agreed that both will be kept within Cornwall's Leisure Service for the time-being.

The future of both facilities - much loved in their local communities - had been in doubt after last year's 'Emergency Budget' decided to stop funding them. Local groups have been set up to try to secure their future but they face a race against time as tide-over money from the Council is set to run out soon.

The reason for the renewed optimism is the setting up of a trust to run leisure services across Cornwall. Because leisure facilities are not a statutory service (ie Cornwall Council does not need to provide any), they are an easy target for budget cuts. Moving to a trust model would save around £1 million each year because they would not need to pay business rates and they would also not be liable for VAT.

On the downside, the control that the council (and councillors) over the service would be a lot less, but the contract would be written in such a way as to make sure that venues and cost bands would be safe.

I pressed for the two 'cast adrift' facilities to be kept within the new Trust and officers have promised to do so for the time being. It's not a cast-iron guarantee. There may be cost pressures in the future which mean that these facilities cannot be kept on. But at the very least this buys more time for the community groups set up to save them and I will be trying to make sure that they remain part of the new Trust for the foreseeable future.

New LEP Chair will be half cost of Banham

The new Chair of the Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership - Chris Pomfret - will cost less than half the amount paid to his short-lived predecessor Sir John Banham. Cornwall Council's Cabinet was today told that Mr Pomfret will receive compensation of £20,000 per year for undertaking the role. The cost of Sir John Banham's time for the six months or so that he was working on the project was more than £46,000.

Sir John "decided not to seek the full time role" after what appeared to outsiders to be a massive difference of views with the Council. He was appointed on the recommendation of Tory MP for Camborne George Eustice.

The Cabinet was also told that the identities of the Cornwall Council representatives on the board will not be finalised until the end of the month as they have to wait for the private sector positions to be filled.

At the moment it is not known whether there will be four, five or six private sector members and there will be an equal number of public sector appointees with the private sector chair having a casting vote if needed.

What is known is that Alec Robertson (Leader of the Council) and Carolyn Rule (Cabinet Member for the Economy) will take two seats with a rep from the Council of the Isles of Scilly and someone from the Combined Universities of Cornwall filling a further two.

I do recall that it was promised by the Leader that there would be cross party Cornwall Council representation on the Board. Two Conservatives have already been nominated and Cllr Mike Eathorne-Gibbons (another Tory) made an impassioned plea to be given a seat at today's meeting - or so it seemed to a number of observers. So is this a pledge that is about to be broken?

I once again raised the issue of someone from the voluntary (third) sector having a seat at the table and was told that this would hopefully be picked up from among the private sector representatives. I just hope that it will be a little more than someone who sits on a charity board alongside their business interests as I think it's vital that Cornwall's burgeoning charity and voluntary sector is properly represented.

Bid for Launceston 'Enterprise Zone'

Launceston is bidding to become the venue for one of the Government's new 'Enterprise zones'. The zones - set up to encourage new businesses to start up in areas which have suffered in the downturn - have been announced by the Government. The first 11 venues were announced in the budget last month and a further 10 are being sought.

To qualify as an enterprise zone, an area has to be nominated by a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and fulfil a number of strict criteria. Cornwall now has an LEP and has confirmed that it will seek to nominate an area to become an Enterprise Zone.

Why Launceston?

East Cornwall has tended to miss out on direct government investment as most area-specific projects funded by Objective One, Convergence and RDA funding have been further west in the Duchy. Areas such as Camborne, Pool and Redruth had a good case to make for funding and have received lots. East Cornwall has an equally good case but has received very little. We also have the benefits in Launceston of excellent road links via the A30, being early in the delivery programme for Next Generation Broadband and having space to locate employment sites and the people to work in them.

North Cornwall is the most disadvantaged part of the Duchy when it comes to access to higher and further education and an Enterprise Zone would have the benefit of bringing educational and training opportunities as well as direct jobs.

This is an issue which has the support of councillors from across the Launceston area with my colleagues Adam Paynter and Sasha Gillard-Loft backing the bid as well as Conservative Phil Parsons and the Town Council.

Enterprise zones do not cover huge areas. The required size is just 50-150 hectares. Land to the west of Pennygillam Industrial Estate as well as to the south of the Link Road would be suitable (and there may well also be other sites around our town.

The matter now rests with Cornwall Council. They have confirmed they will be bidding and will select a site over the next few months to propose to the new LEP.

Abolishing Cornwall Council panels - Cllr Hicks 'does a Lansley'

The big row scheduled for today's Cornwall Council Cabinet meeting didn't happen as the hugely controversial proposal to abolish some panels - including the Parking Policy Panel - was shelved as Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks did an impression of Andrew Lansley and suggested a pause for reflection.

This was in response to the responses by ordinary members of the Council who were (almost) universally disapproving of the move which was seen by many as a direct attack on Cllr Andrew Wallis, Chair of the Parking Panel, who has had a number of run ins with the council leadership over the past few months.

So there will be further consultation on the subject - which hopefully look at the way backbench members are consulted and involved in a whole range of decision making.

It was also announced by the Leader that councillors will now receive a weekly update of what the council is saying by way of press releases and how we are portrayed in the press and a monthly report on what we are doing. It seems that the message conveyed to him by angry backbenchers from his party about the lack of information coming down from the fourth floor at County Hall has had an effect.

It was also agreed that there will be progress made with appointing 'Cabinet Support Members'. I've speculated in the past that this is simply a way to buy off Conservative rebels by giving them pseudo-jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth, said the Leader. Instead, it is because the Cabinet are all over-worked and need assistance. Of course, if the cabinet members were all up to the task they were appointed to do then there might be less of a need for assistants.

The role of Cabinet Support Members is, as yet, very poorly defined - something that was acknowledge by the Leader. And so a job description will be written before a remuneration panel decides how much they will be paid.

As one councillor pointed out, it seems very wrong that we should be asking council staff to work harder for the same (or less) pay yet as soon as the Cabinet feels it needs more support the money can be found. Cllr Julian German suggested that it would be good value for money. Cllr Robertson said that he would make sure there was no additional cost. Who is right? We shall have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, key decisions on large areas of council services were also made...

It was 20 years ago today...

... that Cornwall beat Yorkshire by 29 points to 20 after extra time in the final of the County Championship.

Other championships have been won before and since, but this was my greatest rugby experience ever.

For a bit of Nigel Starmer-Smith:

UPDATE: A photo from the time, courtesy of my mother

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Welcoming Turkish visitors to Launceston

This afternoon I was glad to welcome a group of ten visitors from Turkey to Launceston. The visitors are all involved in local government in Ankara and were on a fact finding mission to understand more about councils and how they work in the UK.

So whilst discussing the various responsibilities of parish and town councils, Cornwall Council and central government, we went on a walk around the town. The visitors enjoyed looking at St Mary Magdalene Church and the Castle and were welcomed to the library by manager Anne-Marie.

At the end of the tour, the visitors presented me with a vase decorated with the logo of their council.

This wasn't the sort of visit that is likely to lead directly to more tourism, but it is great to see more visitors from overseas in our town and an interest in how our local councils work.

Cornwall's massive litter pick

Cornwall Council has revealed that the massive litter pick along the main routes into the Duchy retrieved 500 bags of rubbish and cost around £20,000.

The Council is absolutely right to have done this work as the A30 and A38 are the main routes used by visitors coming into Cornwall and, as the saying goes, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression.

The Council is also right to point out that dropping litter is an offence and this money would not have had to be spent if drivers didn't throw litter out of their cars in the first place.

The only question I have is as to why the Council needed to do this work in the first place. Both the A30 and A38 are trunk roads which are managed by the Highways Agency. So why didn't they organise (and pay for) this work?

He said he would - and he did. Clegg gives profit from second home sale to taxpayer

Nick Clegg has today fulfilled a promise made before the general election to give the profit from the sale of his taxpayer funded second home back to the taxpayer.

As an MP, Nick Clegg was allowed to buy a second home and to have the mortgage and other bills met by the taxpayer. However the rules changed last year and MPs from outside London are now only allowed to rent a second home. The rules allow any profits made from selling property to be kept by the MP, but Nick thought this was unfair on taxpayers who have funded the house and so he pledged to give any profits back. Today he kept this promise.

Photo shows Nick Clegg with his wife Miriam and his election agent leaving his then Sheffield home to vote in the General Election last year.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Eustice claims Zimbabwe is good reason to keep FPTP

Camborne MP George Eustice is one of those leading the campaign against changing to a fairer voting system. His claims about why people should vote No are becoming ever more ridiculous.

First of all, he claimed that electronic voting machines would be needed if the system changed. However, the claim was rubbished by Conservative councillor Jim Currie (who is in charge of electoral issues on Cornwall Council) who confirmed the Electoral Commission's ruling that there would be no need for expensive new voting machines if the change to the voting system is agreed.

In his latest argument in favour of the current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, Eustice argues that there are 70 democracies around the world that use FPTP. As the Cornish Zetetics blog points out, this list includes such well regarded democracies as Zimbabwe, Yemen and Ethiopia - all countries which have a terrible record on human rights and the rule of law and which are considered autocratic regimes by experts.

Giving local people a voice in local decisions

Labour Councillor Jude Robinson has blogged about her frustrations over the community network panel in her area of Camborne and Redruth. I share many of her concerns.

When the unitary council was created, the Liberal Democrats demanded that there should be local panels to ensure that the views of residents and of town and parish councils were taken into account in decisions which affect local areas.

Under our vision, these would be properly accountable local bodies with real decision making powers. Unfortunately, the Conservatives did not agree and their first action when they took control of the council was to put a halt to all localism work whilst they reviewed it.

And so the community networks started almost a year late and with no real authority. Quite rightly, different areas have developed their panels in different ways and there is no 'one size fits all' approach. It seems from what Jude says that the Camborne and Redruth panel is not working in quite the way that local members might like.

In contrast, the panels in the East seem to be working a lot better. In Launceston, for example, the panel has held discussions on the need for affordable housing with parish councils talking directly to Cabinet Member Mark Kaczmarek about what they want to see in their area. This Thursday, we will be meeting again to look at the refreshed Launceston 2020 plan to consider what community infrastructure will be needed alongside housing and retail developments which might come forward in the future.

Thursday's meeting will be held at Egloskerry Village Hall at 7pm and all are welcome to attend.

Cutting crime investigators

Devon and Cornwall Police have been getting some stick recently for their decision to cut 71 civilian crime investigators across the force area.

The crime investigators are employed to take witness statements and do all the case preparation work needed after an arrest to make sure that a case can be prosecuted. This work used to be done by uniformed police officers but, in a move to put more officers on visible patrol, the new team of civilians was created about two years ago.

If the crime investigators are made redundant then the work will once again have to be done by uniformed officers - meaning fewer police on our streets.

On Saturday, North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson and I met with one of the crime investigators who is threatened with redundancy. Whilst the Police have claimed that all options are open as they seek to save money, it is clear that this group of staff are being targeted for the chop. The Chief Constable says:
he had been "looking at every part of the business" including the "possibility" of having less crime investigators but "managing them in a different way"
but I have seen a document referring to the 'proposal' to cut all 71 posts.

It isn't just the GMB union and those threatened with redundancy who are up in arms. Many uniformed officers are also very concerned. One serving officer has said the following:
"I think this whole thing is a disgrace and demonstrates that our so called management and leadership, when choosing to dispense with civilian staff because it's easier, are nothing of the sort.

I've been saying this a lot to people today and I don't care. In my opinion, you're worth ten of some of my sworn staff colleagues. Everybody i've spoken to agrees with me. When we find out, after a difficult arrest, that it's you that is doing the interviewing and case file preparation, we breathe a sigh of relief. It's because we know that you'll put everything into it and do everything that needs to be done; and even if the end result isn't always the one we want, we know that it will be the best possible, because you've done it.

I just want you to know that the people that matter are behind you 100% and that if there was anything I could do to influence the outcome, I would. If the organisation does go down the route of redundancy for hard working, professional civilian staff like you, then Devon and Cornwall Police will be a poorer, shabbier organisation. Why do I feel ashamed...??"
Of course, there has been a 6% cut in crime across Devon and Cornwall over the past year and 30% drop over the last five years and the Police should rightly be applauded for this. But there are many people who worry which way these figures will go if some of the most efficient staff are lost. The overall detection rate in our patch of North Cornwall last year was 43% but the civilian crime investigators have detection rates of more than 70% each.

There is the very real argument to be made that these cuts are only coming about because of the cuts in funding from central Government. To some extent that is true. But it is also clear that there are opportunities to cut police budgets in a way that would have far less of an effect on their work. I understand that options to cut hours across the board have been rejected as have other union backed proposals. But at the same time, money from the capital budgets is still being spent on less than essential redecoration projects and the Chief Constable still has a uniformed officer as his driver.

Will the price of loyalty be £80k per year?

Much speculation on the continuing rifts within the ruling Conservative group on Cornwall Council. It is an open secret at County Hall that there are a number of Tory councillors who are very unhappy with the leader, his closeness with certain officers and the lack of communication with his wider group.

A couple of weeks ago there was talk of a letter demanding changes which had been signed by anything up to 22 Conservative councillors. A number of 'not at all' crisis meetings later and the situation doesn't look to have been resolved.

So at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday there is a paper proposing the creation of the new position of 'Cabinet Support Member' - ie councillors who will be part of the administration and be able to take some decisions but won't get to vote in full cabinet meetings.

The paper talks about the need to pay these members but doesn't talk about an amount. However the figure being speculated is £8,000 per year. If you assume that there will be one support member for each of the ten members of the Cabinet then the total bill looks like being £80,000 per year despite the stated intention of cutting the amount paid to members.

The idea of support members was floated in the past but has only been considered for real as a result of the dissent within the Conservative Group. So is £80,000 per year a reasonable price to pay for loyalty?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Street signs for Kensey Valley Meadow

This morning I walked around Kensey Valley Meadow with the council officer responsible for addresses and street signs. This was in response to a complaint from the emergency services about how they often find it difficult to locate a precise address on the development.

The problem is that (with the exception of the small Kensey Court) every one of the 195 or so properties has the street address Kensey Valley Meadow. And although the numbering is consecutive for the most part, there are many times when it is not and it can be quite difficult to find a particular house if you are not familiar with the layout. For the emergency services, this can be a big problem and could lead to a delay in being able to provide life-saving support.

If such a development were being planned today, there would almost certainly be more than one street name used. But it is incredibly difficult to changes things retrospectively as this would mean all house deeds would have to be changed as would utility contracts, headed stationery and the like. It would mean quite a cost for householders and is not something that the Council is thinking of pursuing.

And so, in order to make things easier for visitors, the council is looking to get a number of new street signs put up to indicate which house numbers are where. I have asked that they present their plans at the consultation and play day on April 28th on the main green.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Camelford offices - Police seek to get out of their lease

Devon and Cornwall Police have asked Cornwall Council if they can give up the lease they recently took out to allow them to share the Council's premises at Camelford. The move apparently comes in the wake of force budget cuts of around £50 million and was reported to councillors by the Council's Head of Property at a public meeting today.

The decision to share the Camelford offices with the Police caused a big row last year because it meant that planning and other meetings could no longer be held at the site. No other suitable venue could be found in North Cornwall and so all meetings for the East of Cornwall have since been held in Liskeard. The former North Cornwall - covering about a third of the total area of the Duchy - can host no meetings at all.

No alteration works have yet been done on the building and the Police have not moved in. Now it appears that they want to abandon the deal and have asked the Council for permission to surrender the lease.

So whilst the ideal of the Council and Police working more closely together in Camelford doesn't look as if it will be happening in the near future, there is hope for local councillors and residents that meetings could once again return to North Cornwall.

Staff mileage rates

The front page of today's Western Morning News splashes on the mileage rates apparently paid to some Cornwall Council staff. The claim is made that this was as high as 65p per mile. The price of petrol may be eye-wateringly high at the moment, but there is clearly no justification for paying such high rates.

But the implication of the Taxpayers' Alliance report (which forms the basis of the WMN splash) that these payments continue is not the case in fact. The newspaper properly reflects this but the TA report does not as it uses the present tense saying that staff are able to claim the 65p rate rather than the truth - which is that they were able to do so in the past.

The report also fails to note (as the BBC's Graham Smith does) that the 65p rate was for the first 8500 miles after which the rate dropped to 16p per mile. Apparently telling the whole truth "would have been overly complicated".

When Cornwall Council was created, many staff were transferred from the former districts and County Council at their original terms and conditions. Some of these included the very high mileage rates.

Cornwall Council has rightly looked at the mileage rates and changed the system in January last year so that all staff are now paid at the rate of 40p per mile for the first 3000 miles and 20p per mile thereafter - a rate which properly balances the need for value for money and the actual cost to the staff member in using their car and which is lower than the guideline rate set by the Inland Revenue.

At the same time, the Council is working to ensure that staff don't need to travel so much as part of their work - although I think there will still be some more work to do on this.

So whilst the Taxpayer's Alliance report is factually correct, it is disappointing that they don't note the good work that Cornwall Council has done to bring these costs down.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Labour backs scrapping weekly bin collections

An interesting post from Cornwall's sole Labour councillor in which she comes out in favour of scrapping weekly black bag collections.

The council's ballot closes on May 15th and you can vote online here. I recommend backing Option A which means keeping weekly collections.

Legal Advice on looked after children - some movement at last

After a bit of a furore over my blog post yesterday about the delay in the council being able to tell me what legal role councillors play in responsibility for looked after children, it looks as though there might be some movement - a mere six months after I asked the question.

I have had a helpful reply from one of the legal officers which, although it doesn't completely answer the question, at least takes me some way along the road.

More, no doubt, when the full response arrives

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A bit of pot and kettle from Guido

Guido Fawkes, the blogger formerly known as Paul Staines, has today claimed that people appearing in the Yes2AV broadcast this evening are 'slightly odd looking'.

A slight case of pots and kettles I think:

(For the record, I would never claim to be an oil painting myself...)

So what responsibility do councillors have as corporate parents? Cornwall Council can't tell me. UPDATED

UPDATE - My original posting was inaccurate in a couple of respects and I am happy to make changes as a result and apologise for what I got wrong. However, my key point still remains.

Back in October, Cornwall councillors were urged to attend training sessions which promised to tell us about our legal responsibilities as 'corporate parents'. The Council is a corporate parent because it is responsible for children's homes and looked after children.

I attended a session on October 5th and was amazed that it did not cover the key question as to what the legal responsibility of ordinary councillors is. The best they came up with was that "councillors have a legal duty to be interested" - which is complete rubbish.

So I asked the question of the Council's legal officers and waited.

Some six months later, and after numerous reminders, I still have not had a reply.

Monday, 11 April 2011

And bears defecate in tree-filled areas...

The news that Warren Bradley, former Lib Dem Leader of Liverpool City Council, should - at election time - have been the author of a leaked memo which suggests that the Conservatives are not universally loved in his city is surely not that much of a surprise?

Is it?

Here are Nick and Warren (and Colin Eldridge) in happier times:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Art auction in aid of Shelterbox

This evening the volunteers of the Barefoot Games project held an art auction in aid of Shelterbox and their work in Japan at the White Hart in Launceston. In total, the event raised a fantastic £4410.

There were around 60 pieces of art donated by a range of artists and creators ranging from some amateur works to several pieces of museum quality. Regrettably, some of the higher end lots didn't reach their reserve and so will be kept to be sold another day, but there were some very high prices paid for some of the other works including more than £650 for a wonderful McGowan painting.

Huge congratulations to Ben and all the volunteers who did a fantastic job of putting on the event and to all those who came along to buy. I ended up buying a couple of lots - although one of those was by mistake!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Are the Lib Dems in the wrong jobs in Government?

The current storm over the Government's proposals for the NHS is not surprising, but gives weight to the argument that the Lib Dems have ended up in the wrong ministries. How much influence can the Lib Dem cabinet members have when they are stuck dealing with decidedly un-sexy subjects?

If you ask people what they care about most, it tends to be things like hospitals, schools and jobs - not constitutional reform or even human rights. To that extent, I would argue that Nick Clegg should have argued for a Lib Dem to be given the top job in one of these 'service' departments. Perhaps it might even have avoided the current furore over the health service.

So where did we go wrong? There are five Lib Dem members of the Cabinet. It was important from the start that we had 'our man' in the Treasury and Danny Alexander fills the role of Chief Secretary. There has been a vital Lib Dem win in this department with almost a million people having been taken out of the tax system already, but the tax man is never going to make a huge number of friends - particularly when it is the Tory Chancellor who can try to claim the credit.

Nick Clegg himself is Deputy Prime Minister, but his ministerial role focusses on constitutional reform. This is a key issue for Liberal Democrats and getting the AV referendum was a key win. But it is not something that interests the general public. Even human rights and ending Labour's attacks on civil liberties are not the most pressing subject for most people.

In Vince Cable we have a Business Secretary who has done much good. but he was saddled with the whole student fees debacle from the start and has yet to really emerge from under the rubble.

Chris Huhne, as Energy Secretary, deals with another area of key interest to Lib Dems, but wind farms and electric cars are not the bread and butter issues of most peoples' lives.

And in Michael Moore the Lib Dems have a minister who is powerless to influence the key services because responsibility has, quite rightly, been devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

There are, of course, a whole raft of Lib Dem ministers below Cabinet rank. But even though Sarah Teather, Norman Baker, Andrew Stunell et al might be doing a fabulous (and Liberal) job, it is their Tory bosses who dominate the airwaves when there is any good news to be announced. And Health Minister Paul Burstow failed to prevent the NHS changes as originally proposed even though he was there at the heart of the decision making process.

None of this means that Lib Dem ministers are bad at their jobs or are failing to achieve real things based on the party manifesto. But what has happened is that, by being in the wrong top jobs, Lib Dems are not speaking about the subjects most of interest to the British people and we are therefore not being seen to speak for Britain.

I recall that when Sinn Fein first entered the government of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the unionists scrambled to keep them out of jobs involving cross border institutions. As a result, Martin McGuiness was in charge of education and his colleagues took over the other key spending departments. A similar thing has happened in Westminster as the Lib Dems have taken over the ministries they most wanted rather than those of most interest to the public.

As Shirley Williams once said about a Lib Dem-centric issue - 'I agree with you passionately, but it is 97th on my list of priorities'. Perhaps it is time that Nick Clegg realised this and, if the summer re-shuffle is to become a reality, takes the chance to insist that Lib Dems take on more important roles.

Two thirds (so far) backing weekly rubbish collections

So far, around two thirds of Cornish residents who have responded are backing keeping weekly black bag rubbish collections. But there is still time to have your say on the issue.

The full story about the vote is here. In short, the Council is holding a ballot of all residents to help decide whether to keep weekly collections or to move to fortnightly collections. According to the Council the current scores are 66% in favour of Option A (weekly collections) and 34% in favour of Option B (fortnightly).

The poll closes on 14th May and every Cornish resident can vote by going here.

In this week's Cornish Guardian, Cllr Julian German the Cabinet Member in charge of waste, sets out why he favours option B. To make sure that he doesn't get his way, please use your vote.

A little bit of Tory hypocrisy

The North Cornwall version of this morning's Cornish Guardian carries a photo and article on the front page with villagers in Blisland complaining about the axing of the Corlink bus service. Sadly, this type of story is not unusual at the moment as the Council cuts local services which are considered vital by local residents.

But one of the people in the photo is Cornwall Conservative Councillor Mick Martin who represents Blisland as part of the Lanivet ward. What's so unusual about that? Well the cuts to the Corlink service were specifically detailed in the emergency budget which Cornwall Council agreed back in December. Liberal Democrats voted against the budget and these front line service cuts. Cllr Mick Martin voted for the cuts.

I presume the residents who are pictured with him were not aware of his hypocrisy over this.

Abolition of Parking Panel

Cornwall Council's cabinet has decided to abolish the panel which looks at the issue of parking - it seems because the panel members (and chairman) have disagreed with the official cabinet line once too often.

I won't pretend to have always agreed with the Parking Panel. I think the new charges are ridiculous and will kill town centres. But I accept that they have gone about their work diligently and have been hamstrung by the changes to their remit imposed on them by the Cabinet. The key reason for the huge rises in Launceston - the demand by Cabinet that parking makes a certain profit and that the charges across Cornwall should be broadly equal - were imposed by the Cabinet.

The current work programme of the Panel is focussed on issues such as parking enforcement, waiting times and parking outside schools. All 'nitty-gritty' issues which require some in-depth work. One of the questions is whether anyone else will have the time to look at these issues in public or whether the work will now be done by officers behind closed doors.

There was considerable anger at today's meeting of the panel, especially at the complete lack of courtesy shown by Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks in failing even to turn up to explain the reasons for the abolition.

So what will replace the Parking Panel? We have no real idea as nobody was able to explain at today's meeting. Perhaps we will get the answer at the next Cabinet meeting. But I suspect that the main workload will fall on officers - hard-working but dealing with issues in secret. The key decisions will be taken by Cabinet members who don't understand the issue. At a recent meeting, Council Leader Alec Robertson insisted that the maximum rise in season tickets would be 10%. That's not true - here they will rise by more than 200% - and it shows a very worrying lack of understanding about a key impact on businesses and residents. And even the Cabinet member is not up to speed. He didn't even know that his budget was facing a £1.8 million shortfall.

Perhaps the real reason for the abolition of the Parking Panel is the independent streak shown by Parking Panel Chairman Cllr Andrew Wallis who has been a frequent critic of the administration. Cornwall Council petty and vindictive? Who'd have thought it?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Cornwall Council's idea of strong strategic leadership - throwing their toys out of the pram

Yesterday came the news that the Government has rejected the proposal for the new Isles of Scilly link. Not only that, but they were utterly scathing of the bid, calling it 'very poor value for money'. In response, today Cornwall Council has pulled out of the whole scheme.

There has been considerable debate on the plans for the new larger vessel and the associated harbour works in Penzance. There have also been questions about why the Duchy of Cornwall was not contributing more.

And there is probably a valid debate about why the Government continued to encourage the scheme only to then deride it in such terms. It would be wise for the Council to publish the full details of every communication they have had from the Government in order to back up their case.

But what is not sensible, in my opinion anyway, is for Cabinet Members Graeme Hicks and Alec Robertson to throw their toys out of the pram in quite the manner they have. Cornwall Council is meant to be about strong strategic leadership - and on this issue, whether or not you agree with the stance taken, they have done so.

Until now.

Cllr Hicks has said that Cornwall Council wants nothing more to do with the Isles of Scilly link project and it should be up to the Government to deal with the issue from now on. That is a complete failure of leadership and brings into question whether Cllr Hicks is the right person to remain in charge of transportation projects within Cornwall if he spits his dummy this badly every time something doesn't go his way.

The right way forward is to accept the verdict of the Government and to work on alternatives. The Steamship Company, even though they were named as the preferred bidder for the new project, seems happy to get on with the new reality. Cornwall Council should be too.

A morning at Launceston College

This morning I submitted myself to the grilling of 100 Launceston College Year 12 Citizenship students alongside Launceston Town Mayor Paul O'Brien.

The aim of the exercise was to explain what the different tiers of elected representatives do, how we got to where we are today and how we interact with each other and with MPs.

Among the questions I got were ones on tuition fees (I think the Government is wrong), the AV referendum (I'm in favour because it gives more power to voters) and whether I feel frustrated or enthusiastic in my role (both - sometimes I win, sometimes not).

I think it's important for younger people to have the chance to question local politicians (and would-be politicians) from all shades of option. Presenting information and views will, hopefully, help to get more people engaged and taking part and forming views of their own.

One of the issues that Paul pointed out was that many councils - both the Town and Cornwall Council included - are dominated by retired white men. We do slightly better on Cornwall Council, but there is still a strong bias against younger people in particular and I'm keen to make sure that we have a much more representative set of elections next time.