Monday, 27 June 2011

One in five Cornwall children living in poverty

Cornwall Council has released new data which shows that around one in five children in Cornwall is living in poverty with a range from 2% in the wealthiest areas to 58% in parts of Camborne.

Full marks to Chris Ridgers - now a member of the Cabinet, but formerly chair of the Children's Scrutiny Committee which commissioned the report. He is quoted by the BBC saying:

"We found it wasn't just the poverty that was the issue. It had knock-on implications for health, there was a strong correlation between the rate of teenage pregnancy and deprivation, educational achievement. There was a link to quality of housing, a link to job opportunities, even how long people would live was linked into poverty."

According to the report, Launceston is not one of the worst affected areas, but there are still estimated to be around 315 children living in poverty in our town with the highest concentration in the North East of the town around the Ridgegrove and Lanstephan estates. That equates to about 19.3% of the child population making Launceston about average for Cornwall.

However, that can't disguise the impact of living in poverty on individual children and on families. I'm very glad that Chris is looking to push the subject up the Council's agenda and look forward to seeing what Cornwall will be doing for children living in poverty.

Watch Council debate Hay Common application live this Thursday

On Thursday, Cornwall Council's Strategic Planning Committee will be discussing the application for 330 new houses and a new primary school at Hay Common (near the slip road onto the A30, south of Tesco).

This meeting will be held in Truro and starts at 10am with Hay Common second on the agenda. However, you can also watch the meeting live via the Council's web-casting system - simply go to from 10am.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Launceston College to close on 30th June

It looks as though Launceston College will be closed next Thursday 30th June. There are a number of public sector strikes planned for the day and a number of schools in Cornwall are affected. The College is on the current list of school closures on that day.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ben Aaronovitch - Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho

So your brother is a well known social democrat type political columnist. What do you do? Well obviously you write science fiction scripts for TV and radio and a couple of superb novels.

It's pretty difficult to characterise Ben Aaronovitch's books. On one hand they are about an apprentice wizard. But they are certainly not Harry Potter. They are also police procedurals. But they're not Rebus. And they're funny. But they're not Christopher Brookmyre. Combine all three and you come close to Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho.

The central character is newbie policeman Peter Grant. Son of a jazz playing West Indian immigrant and fearsome West African mother, Grant is second in command of a pretty specialised police department - so specialised that there are only two officers in it. They deal with magical goings on, ghosts, vampires and river gods. The tales are extremely funny and have the full range of comic mayhem of Brookmyre or Carl Hiaasen.

Aaronovitch apparently has a three book deal and the first two have come out in pretty short order. I suspect I'll be annoyed at the length of time it takes for the third, but it'll be well worth the wait.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The further implications of Jan Powell leaving the Conservatives

The decision by Jan Powell, Cornwall Councillor for Liskeard North, to leave the Conservatives and join the Liberal Democrats is, of course, hugely welcome for myself and my colleagues.

Jan's decision was prompted by the behaviour of Conservative Council Leader Alec Robertson which Jan has described in the following terms:

“The Leader of the Council has become remote from rank and file members of all parties and has marginalised councillors from the democratic process. The choices he makes always seem to be those most damaging to Cornwall and are not the choices I campaigned on, notwithstanding the tight financial restraints the Council is operating under. An example of this was the ill-informed attack on the Supporting People programme and was the principle reason why I voted against the administration’s budget this year.”

“There has to be openness and transparency in everything we do and consultation must mean exactly that. Over the last 12 months there has been a marked contrast between the behind-closed-doors approach of Cornwall’s Tory leadership and the open-minded, people people-first outlook of the Council’s Liberal Democrats."

“The people of Cornwall rightly expect us to do our best to protect the services they value so highly and I’m very much looking forward to making a start on the vital work needed to put things right at County Hall. There are particular concerns over the Tory proposals for the NHS and I have been impressed with the Liberal Democrat drive for a fundamental rethink. The whole issue requires careful and structured scrutiny with proper emphasis to protect - not privatise - our world-respected National Health Service.”

One of the reasons that Jan left the Conservatives was because she was arbitrarily removed from her position on the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee. So we now have the political parlour game of trying to work out who the administration will seek to nominate in her place.

The rumour currently doing the rounds is that it will be Joan Symons, recently dumped by Cllr Robertson from the Cabinet. But Joan was given a position as a Cabinet Support Member as a consolation prize and is not allowed to hold that and also be chair or vice chair of a scrutiny committee. So if she takes on the Health role, she will have to resign from being a CSM and Cllr Robertson's reshuffle falls apart further.

Cornwall Council forced into grit bin re-think

Cornwall Council has been forced into a bit of a re-think over its plans to dump responsibility for roadside grit bins on town and parish councils. Just four parishes agreed to take over responsibility.

After the cold 2009/10 winter, last summer Cornwall Council decided to look again at its policy on road salting and grit bins. They slightly extended the network of roads which will be salted but decided to pull out of responsibility for grit bins within 12 months. They wrote to all town and parish councils asking them whether they wanted to take over responsibility.

Unfortunately, there was no money offered to help towns and parishes to do this, despite a single grit bin sometimes costing as much as the entire precept for a small parish. And so just four responded to say they would do so - Grampound, Mevagissey, Perran-ar-Worthal and Newquay. A lot of parishes have no grit bins to take over, but this tiny response has forced the Council into a re-think.

The scrutiny committee covering this issue was offered three choices:
  • continue with the current policy and remove grit bins in all but those four parishes;
  • keep the current grit bin network but only fill them once per year, forcing towns and parishes to pay if they want a re-stocking;
  • revert to the old policy of Cornwall Council management of grit bins.

In the end, the committee chose to recommend the middle option which will see the current network maintained. I would have preferred to devolve the matter to towns and parishes, but this cannot be done simply by Cornwall Council dumping the service. There has to be some recognition of the financial impact, particularly on smaller parishes.

Launceston gets Enterprise Zone promise

The newly formed Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has identified Launceston as a potential site for a new Enterprise Zone (EZ). Enterprise Zones are areas of land which are targeted for new jobs and businesses by Government and local authorities.

Last week, Adam Paynter, Sasha Gillard-Loft and I (* see below) met with the new Chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership Chris Pomfret and with Cornwall Council's Head of Economic Development Dr Sandra Rothwell to make the case for Launceston. We were delighted to get such a positive reception as we made the case for more well paid jobs and better infrastructure for our town.

The full LEP has since decided to carry out further work on Launceston and just two other areas. This will ensure that we are in a strong position to take advantage of the potential changes in legislation and work towards EZ status in the future.

We are, of course, disappointed not to be put forward by the LEP for Enterprise Zone status on this occasion after all the hard work put in to make our case. But we understand that the Newquay Airport bid has all the documentation ready and we wish them well in their pitch to Government.

We want to make sure that, the next time Cornwall is able to bid for an Enterprise Zone, Launceston is ready to go. We have the best road links with the rest of the UK, we are in the first tranches of next generation broadband and we are ideally placed for both coasts. But we also need better post-16 education provision and more skilled jobs. That is why we need the Enterprise Zone.

I have been told that of all the pitches that the new LEP Chair received, the bid from Launceston impressed him the most. It is only the fact that the legal work and other red tape has not been completed that held us back.

Such a glowing report bodes very well for our town and the three Liberal Democrat councillors will continue to do everything we can to bring more high paid jobs and better infrastructure to Launceston.

*As well as Sasha, Adam and myself, councillors Neil Burden and Phil Parsons were invited to the meeting but did not attend.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

New play equipment agreed for Ridgegrove

It's been a long time coming, but work will finally be starting in the next few weeks on replacement play equipment on the Ridgegrove Estate.

I've been working with local residents for this for some considerable time and battling to prevent the loss of the only accessible play area for local children and families. I'm delighted that this is finally getting the go ahead.

The old equipment on both the upper and lower play areas was pretty dated and has either been taken out or is on the verge of being ripped out on health and safety grounds.

Officers have agreed to a brand new play area on the upper green with new equipment, new flooring and a new safety fence. This is a great investment in our local community.

We are still working on what can go on the middle play area - I am hoping for some natural play logs, but the money has to be found.

Death of Brian Haw

The death has been announced of peace campaigner Brian Haw. Mr Haw was famous for being a pain in the arse for the Mayor of London, for the Government and for the Police.

Ten years ago, Brian Haw set up camp in Parliament Square and, despite numerous attempts to have him moved, his tent remained until his death.

Haw would regularly harangue MPs as they entered the Palace of Westminster and his displays of pictures of the effects of war were rarely short of shocking.

Whether you agreed with him or not, Brian Haw was someone you had to admire.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Free after 4 campaign taking off

The campaign by Sasha Gillard-Loft and myself to highlight the fact that Cornwall Council car parks in Launceston are now free after 4pm is taking off.

For all the bad news of the parking changes that came into force on May 9th, the one bit of good news is that you no longer have to pay after 4pm (previously charging hours ended at 5). But the Council has not been promoting this change leading to many people still paying when they don't need to.

The response from the Council was a small and unclear message on the car park noticeboards indicating that new charges and parking hours were in operation. Still people are paying when they don't need to.

And so we have been giving posters to shops and businesses in the town centre to highlight the change. Apologies to those businesses who have asked for posters and who we haven't been able to get to so far, but demand really has been that high. We will get to you in the next couple of days.

Council to talk to locals about car park charges - only a year too late

Cornwall Council has decided that it will talk to local members and town and parish councils about car parking charges for next year. It's a year too late, but it's a welcome change nonetheless.

This year's charges have caused widespread resentment across Cornwall. I've blogged ad nauseam about how the changes are affecting Launceston, but the story is the same in places like Camborne, Newquay, Helston, Bude and Liskeard.

In deciding how to change prices for the year starting in April 2012, parking panel members will tour Cornwall talking to local councillors and town and parish councils about the car parks in their area.

The tricky bit will be deciding how to make the overall budget and whether that budget is reasonable (I've argued that this year's demand is not, others suggest that a lower parking budget will affect other services). It's no good giving flexibility if that doesn't allow for substantial changes if these are justified.

So whilst the new approach is a step in the right direction, it is not going as far as the Council should consider. We should be looking at what in other areas is called a 'Total Place' solution. Let's look at the effect of parking charges on town centre shops and businesses and on congestion in our streets. We should also consider other services such as public toilets, grass cutting and grit bins and see whether transferring the whole package to a town or parish council could deliver a better service and lead to a more secure income for Cornwall council. Some of this is already planned or promised by the council, but not the whole thing.

The decision to appoint Ray Tovey as the new Cabinet Member for Localism (and the decision to make localism a cabinet portfolio on its own) is a huge step in the direction of recognising the importance of localism as opposed to the one size fits all approach previously. Ray is another of the real good guys within the administration and I hope that we will see much more progress towards giving local people more power over local services.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Indies again refuse to nominate Education chief

At today's Cabinet meeting the Leader talked about the cabinet changes and outlined the role of the cabinet support members. He mentioned the continuing lack of a support member for education and said that the Independent Group would be meeting in the afternoon to make a nomination.

I understand from sources in the Indie group that they have once again refused to do so, saying that they still need to understand more about the role.

As such, despite the Leader saying that this role was absolutely vital and should be paid (we defeated that proposal last month), there is still no name attached to the job.

Caption Competition - Fish and Chips edition

My Launceston colleague Adam Paynter has suggested we have a caption competition for the photo above.

After all the concern about money spent by the Council using payment cards, Council Leader Alec Robertson wanted to show that the fish tank was in use in a children's centre (in Porthleven).

All entries welcome.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Of course you can drive from John O'Groats to Lands End by electric car - but it will take you two weeks

There's a story in today's Western Morning News about two people who have driven from John O'Groats to Lands End in an electric car. Unfortunately, the story seems to be lifted directly from a press release as there is no attempt to challenge some pretty outrageous claims.

The piece says:

"It took them just over two weeks to reach their southerly destination. This was the first end-to-end trip of the UK in a production electric car. It was completed in a similar time to that of a petrol vehicle, except their journey was completed with zero emissions."

Hang on a minute.... I know it's a long way from the far north or Scotland, but the normal time for a car to do the journey is hardly two weeks, particularly as teams of cyclists manage the feat in just ten days or so. In fact, sticking to the speed limits, the journey takes about 15 hours by car.

The problem, of course, is not the Tesla car itself which has a top speed not far off a regular petrol sports car. The problem is that the range of the vehicle without re-charging is about 160 miles at most. After that you need to plug it in overnight unless you are lucky enough to own a special high performance charger.

Electric vehicle technology is probably part of the future for road transport, and refuelling can be pretty cheap. But we shouldn't kid ourselves that it has any practical use outside of cities at the moment.

Acoustic Cafe goes Blues

This month's Acoustic Cafe at Jerichos Brasserie is a bit different with all the acts (and the food) having a Blues theme.

The event takes place on Thursday 30th and will feature Becca Langsford & Vince Lee, Jeff "THEE HORSE" Horsey and Gareth Brooker.

Mel's food will also be bluesy with a choice of spicy meat or veggie bean gumbo and key lime pie or pecan pie to follow.

As ever, entrance is £2 and there will be a £1.50 corkage charge for anyone bringing their own.

Monday, 13 June 2011

"You can't trust the Tories on the NHS" warns Andrew George

St Ives MP Andrew George has been quite robust in his comments on the NHS Bill today, declaring:

"Of course we should pat ourselves on the back for having forced an unprecedented pause in a major piece of Government legislation. It is clear that, had the Conservatives outright power, they would be railroading this Bill through Parliament without hesitation. I'm afraid we can't trust the Tories with the NHS. They brazenly ignored the Coalition Agreement before the ink was even dry. Tory promises on the NHS should be issued with a 'health warning'"

The 'pause' is still continuing, but today the head of the group that is looking at what needs to be done to the Bill has recommended that major changes are needed. In particular, they say that reforms need to go ahead more slowly and that the emphasis should be about co-operation and not about competition.

A couple of weeks ago, Cornwall Council made its own comments on the Bill which included the Liberal Democrat group's call for it to be abandoned and for work to start again from scratch.

Whilst today's news is clearly good, I'm less convinced than Nick Clegg that the Lib Dems have got everything that we wanted. He may say that we have got 11 of the 13 key criticisms directly addressed and the remaining two changed in another way, but that ignores a huge number of concerns which were not included in our debate at conference in March. Even with these 'victories' the NHS Bill will still be a great distance from what many Lib Dems will feel is acceptable.

Should the Lib Dems be able to hold a veto over these NHS reforms? In general, the work of the Government is being governed by the coalition agreement which in turn has policies from Lib Dem and Conservative manifestos. But the sweeping nature of these NHS proposals were in neither manifesto and nor were they in the coalition agreement and so I think it is fair for Lib Dems to refuse to back any changes they don't like (as it is fair for Conservative MPs to do likewise). For so long as the main Tory aim seems to be striding towards privatisation, I think Andrew George's words are right and the Lib Dems should be very wary about accepting any reform of our health service.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Depression - prescribed by your local NHS

During my day at the Royal Cornwall I visited the Cornwall Council pavilion which was being shared with a number of other public services, including the NHS. I got given a 'goodie' bag by the NHS people which is about as depressing as a goodie bag can be.

The bag itself is a pretty positive brown paper bag encouraging people to take their litter home and recycle what they can.

But once you get inside...

- A leaflet on reducing your risk of getting bowel cancer
- A leaflet on detecting skin cancer
- A leaflet explaining how being overweight causes cancer
- A leaflet from the Home Office telling me not to put up with domestic violence
- A bumper pack of advice on how to give up smoking*
- A leaflet telling me that sunbeds will give me cancer
- A leaflet on the Patient Advice and Liaison Service
- A leaflet explaining that alcohol will give me cancer
- A leaflet telling me that too much sun will give me cancer
- A leaflet telling me how not to gain weight if I give up smoking
- A leaflet advising me how to check for testicular cancer
- A leaflet on mens health issues
- A leaflet warning me of the dangers of drinking too much
- A leaflet telling me how to eat healthily
- A leaflet telling me how to get NHS dental treatment
- Another copy of the leaflet on mens health issues
- A small card telling me that getting NHS dental treatment is easier than I think
- Two small tubs of lip balm
- An unsharpened pencil which appears to have no branded message

In themselves, any of these leaflets might be very useful. But the overall effect of so many warning leaflets is deeply depressing - and the only condition for which a leaflet is not provided is depression! Only the advice pack on how to give up smoking looked at all positive. Surely the NHS has a better message to give?

A sad end to a great Royal Cornwall Day - UPDATED

I went to the Royal Cornwall today (on a Saturday for the first time in ages) and had a great day - particularly because the weather was so good. But the day didn't end well for a number of reasons.

Most tragically, there was a crash in the members' car park and, although there are differing reports, I am told there was a fatality. (See Update below - we now know there was not fatality) We heard, rather than saw, what happened and I ran to the scene to find passers-by helping an older driver to get out of his car. He appeared to have crashed into an unoccupied vehicle and he said he was ok. I did my bit to help and by the time I had clambered through the car to switch the engine off, the emergency services were on the scene so we left them to it.

However, there are reports that there was another (or an earlier part to this) accident and this may have involved a fatality. Certainly the air ambulance was brought to the scene. I know no more but obviously hope that the early reports prove not to be true.

I have no idea whether it is a related factor, but another downer at the end of the day was the chaos that drivers experienced trying to get out. We took more than an hour to get out of the members' car park field and the car park stewards on duty appeared to have little idea of how to manage the getaway. Such a delay leads to massively raised tensions and lots of road rage which could be very dangerous in a field where pedestrians are threading their way through cars which are all trying to prevent another from breaking into a queue. This is clearly something that show organisers need to address or there will be questions as to whether capacity needs to be limited.

And finally in the bad news section, the nazi earrings are back. Two years ago I found a stand selling earrings with nazi insignia for a quid a pair. I wrote to the show organisers asking whether they felt these were suitable for the show and got no reply and now the seller is back.

On the plus side....

Lots of people

Some great food and drink

Lots of fun in the main ring including the awesome Bolddog Ling motorcycle stunt riders and some rather anarchic camel polo.

Bumping into lots of friends and a few colleagues.

UPDATE - It appears that there was only the one crash and that there was, fortunately, no fatality. For a full description from an eye witness, click here and read the comment by clarkey123456 (currently the third from the top). It appears this car had crashed into at least four others as well as a pedestrian before coming to a halt.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Council Leader 'sacks' scrutiny chair

Jan Powell, the Conservative Chair of Cornwall's Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee has just emailed all councillors to say that she has been removed from the committee - and hence will no longer be the chair.

Jan's email reads:

Dear All,

Following a meeting today with the Leader Cllr Alec Robertson I have been advised that I have been removed from HAOSC. I do not intend to recount at this point the reasons for dismissal and am seeking legal advice.

Kind regards

Jan Powell

The scrutiny function of a council is meant to be that of an independent critical friend to the administration. The major decisions (other than the overall budget) are all made by the Cabinet of just 10 people and so the only chance that most 'ordinary' councillors get to have their say is on scrutiny committees. Whilst scrutiny can call in decisions which it feels have not been made in the proper manner or with the correct evidence, the bulk of the work is in policy development.

The chairs and vice chairs of the five scrutiny committees are all Conservatives and Independents after the Lib Dems were denied any positions. Nevertheless, they have, in the main, been a pretty independent bunch who have acted on their own initiative and worked closely with their members to oversee the workings of the top floor bunker. The decision by John Keeling to allow an urgent discussion of the Council's payment cards last week is one such display of independence. Jan Powell was definitely one of the good people and obviously cared about what was happening in adult care.

Now it appears (at least on the basis of Jan's email) that the Leader has had a fit of control-freakery. The Conservative group vests all power in the hands of the Leader and so this sort of thing is possible, unlike in the Lib Dems where our committee memberships and nominees for positions are decided by the group as a whole.

If scrutiny is to mean anything on the Council then it needs to be seen to be separate and independent from the executive leadership. Rather than acting like a control freak who cannot accommodate dissenting voices in his group, Cllr Robertson should be welcoming public debate on council policies and decisions.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The curious case of the landlocked 'maritime' regions

Cornwall Council has released another set of responses to queries about payment card spending and there is more information about the Committee of Peripheral Maritime Regions of Europe.

I'm not doubting the efficacy of the organisation or Cornwall's decision to be a member of it. But if I were a resident of Podlaskie region in Poland I might be.

Or if I lived in the Midi-Pyrenees region in France.

Or the Caras Severin or Calarasi regions of Romania.

Cornwall Council phone bills

Yep, Cornwall Council has been embarrassed again by a Freedom of Information request which has found that the Council spent £220.76 on calling the speaking clock and £3,724.75 calling directory inquiries.

Both these sums suggest a waste of money, but the Council says it discovered the spending last July and had instituted a block on calling such numbers from council phones (including council mobiles) by October. We can criticise them for failing to have a block in place before (as authorities like Exeter did), but they have done something about it and no more premium rate bills will be run up.

With an organisation the size that it is, the amount spent on such services is comparatively small and there are likely to be excuses made for the spending. Did you know the speaking clock charges 51p per call? I've seen the number used in training exercises (in other organisations) by people who thought it was free.

As for directory inquiries, most people nowadays know that you can get numbers for free from any one of a range of websites - or even from the old fashioned phonebook. But, at up to £2 per call, it doesn't take many calls to rack up the bill facing Cornwall Council.

It's not quite a case of 'nothing to see here'. Any wasteful spending is embarrassing for the authority which is waving its cuts agenda for all to see. The bill might be bigger than that for the awful silk ties, but, in my opinion, this is a much less embarrassing story for the Council.

Football fan swears shocker!

WARNING: This post contains references to swear words and links to the Daily Mail. If you are likely to be offended by either, please do not read on.

My friend Dave Boyle is being attacked for some of the tweets he wrote in the aftermath of AFC Wimbledon's promotion to the football league. Dave is the boss of the fan ownership organisation Supporters Direct and was a huge help in the establishment of AFC Wimbledon, the club of which I am a huge fan.

Leading the charge is Charles Sale of the Daily Mail. Mr Sale describes Dave as a 'football chief' on the basis that the grander someone sounds, the higher standard the Mail feels they should be held to. But let's be clear, as valuable as Supporters Direct is, it's not on a par with the FA.

The tweets in question were sent in the few hours after AFC beat Luton Town on penalties in the play off final at Eastlands. AFC had risen from the Combined Counties League and won five promotions in nine years. For every fan of the club, this was a huge achievement and every supporter I talked to afterwards was speaking through tears of joy.

Mr Sale quotes one 'insulting remark':

'The bible can **** off. This is the greatest story ever told.'

Dave also lambasted those who franchised the original Wimbledon to Milton Keynes including the club owners and the FA chiefs who allowed the move.

Ok - so the tweets might not be in the best possible taste. But they came from a football fan who had just seen the club he helped to establish win promotion. Football fan swears shocker.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Choosing a name to attract the voters

Would you vote for 'Mr Correct and Fair' or would you rather cast your ballot for 'Mr Australian Horse'? It seems bizarre, but these are two of the names on the ballot paper for a judge's position in San Francisco - at least if you are a Chinese-American.

With more than one in five voters in the city of Chinese origin and with many of those unable to speak or read English, the city has taken to translating candidates' names into chinese characters on the ballot paper.

Some candidates use phonetic translations. So Richard Ulmer's last name became 'Ao Ma' - which in turn translates as Australian Horse.

On the other hand, there is nothing in the rules (at least, not yet) to say that the translation has to be phonetic, or even literal. So Michael Nava, running against Mr Ulmer, became 'Li Zheng Ping', which translates as Correct and Fair. In a contest to be a judge, those two attributes might be seen to be a bit of an advantage.

There's currently a campaign in the city to force candidates to use a phonetic translation. It's being promoted by State Senator Leland Yee who may be said to start with a bit of an advantage since his full chinese name already translates as Emperor Heart.

Hat-tip NPR.

Is Cornwall Council thinking national when it should be concentrating on the local?

One of the biggest potential decisions for Cornwall Council is whether to start trying to market its expertise to other authorities around the country. Towards the end of last week there was a meeting of two scrutiny committees to discuss to proposal to do just that.

Cornwall Council, as a big local authority, carry out a lot of different tasks, most of which are also done by other councils and public bodies across the UK. The idea is that we could take a contract to run a call centre for a London authority, manage the payroll system for a police authority or mend the roads in Devon, for example.

In order to do so, it is proposed that Cornwall looks to form a partnership with a private firm and then try to bid for work from other councils.

The motivation for Cornwall Council, we were told, is to create and maintain jobs in Cornwall. Clearly the motivation for the private company would be profit.

I have decidedly mixed views about this. I am concerned that Cornwall Council may be taking its eye off the ball and forgetting about its core business - which is to run high quality and low cost council services for the residents of Cornwall. I accept that running services for other councils does not automatically detract from this and may also create some jobs.

However, there is also a cost involved in setting up such a scheme (up to half a million pounds), there is no guarantee that the new partnership would ever win any contracts (and bidding for each one costs money) and there is the danger that we lose quality and control of our own services. It was reported last week that a similar joint venture company set up by Birmingham Council and Capita is now moving 100 IT jobs to India. I asked about whether this sort of thing could happen to Cornwall too and was told that it was not what they wanted to see. Of course, but a few years down the line will we have the mechanisms to stop it?

In the end the scrutiny committees voted to agree the principle and it will be up to the Cabinet to put together a scheme and take it forward. I voted against because I simply don't think Cornwall Council is in a position to be doing this sort of high flying scheme at the moment.

If you are interested in the subject, below is the report we were given on this at the meeting:

Scrutiny Report ASD for Shared Services v12 Final FINAL DRAFT-5

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Cornwall Council payment cards

This afternoon the Corporate Resources scrutiny committee was able to quiz officers about the Daily Telegraph story on the use of credit cards by the authority.

Over the days since the story broke, the Council has produced a series of statements in answer to some of the items of spend. We know, for example, that many of the overseas transactions are actually in local currencies and the actual amount spent on those items (in sterling) is pretty tiny. We also know that much of the spending was incurred by the Council but on someone else's behalf and that the money was repaid to Cornwall Council.

The officers weren't able to answer every question - and there will be a full review and report by the end of the month - but we got a stage further today. We know there are 509 payment cards and that their use is standard practice and saves money in transaction costs - £33 per transaction. Being payment cards, no interest ever accrues and we got confirmation today that no fraud has ever been suspected in the use of these cards.

The authority is happy to answer questions on individual spending lines and they are putting answers on the website. But there is resistance to looking at the spending as a whole to be able to reassure members as to who is going on overseas trips and whether the council is paying for officers or consultants to stay at hotels in Cornwall.

This isn't the end of the issue and I suspect that it might inspire more journalists to ask more FoI questions to get a headline for themselves. But we have most of the answers and I'm certainly reassured that the use of the cards is right and proper and Cornwall Council (and the County Council before it) is not wasting resources.

However, it is clear that the process here has not been without hiccups. We need to know why the Telegraph was given the wrong data and we need to know why someone didn't check the data before it was sent. We also need to make sure that our response to negative stories is right first time. For all that we might protest about the use of the term credit card, the council itself used that term in its first response.

We know that the Council has a fantastic media team - they won an award today for their response to the flooding in mid Cornwall - but I would suggest that the response to the Telegraph story was not their finest hour.

Causley Festival Day 1

Last night was the first of this year's Causley Festival in Launceston.

After an initial welcome event for sponsors and local dignitaries, the opening event was a discussion with Professor James Lovelock in the Town Hall. There was a really good turnout for this and a queue of people wanting to quiz the professor and to have books signed.

As with many of the events, there was a reading of one of Causley's poems to start with and Jane Nancarrow did a great job and will hopefully have another big turnout for her guided poetry walk around town on Saturday.

Two other events last night were a poetry and pints event at the Westgate Inn - which I didn't get to - and the Gumbo Flyers at The Bell - which I did. Oscar and the boys had a good turnout and put in their usual stonking performance.

If you are stuck for something to do this evening, why not come to the literary quiz at the Town Hall.

For the full programme of this year's festival events, click the button on the right.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Council's NHS consultation response fair and reasonable - shocker

I know I criticise Cornwall Council a lot, but it's time to hand out some praise. Last week, a rushed and far too short consultation with members was held to discuss the Council's response to the Neath and Care Bill which seeks fundamental reform of the NHS. I think many councillors who were there feared that the formal response would end up being a whitewash and failing to reflect the deep concern that many of us (perhaps even most) at the proposed changes.

But the letter sent by the Leader fails to live down to my fears. In fact, the overall tone is quite negative about the Government's proposals. I would love to think that the Cornwall Council letter will make a key difference - I suspect it won't - but it is not for want of trying.

NHS Listening Exercise 31.05.11-1

So congrats to Alec on this one and here's hoping the Government listens.

Hicks seeking to cancel major Launceston road safety schemes because I blogged that councillors had criticised him

Cornwall Council Cabinet member Graeme Hicks has told officers that vital road safety works in Launceston should be stopped because of a blogpost I wrote in which I highlighted how unhappy councillors from all parties were with his failure to turn up to a meeting.

Cllr Hicks also refused to turn up to a public meeting to discuss the adoption of Kensey Valley Meadow roads and sewers despite having promised to do so.

The works - a new crossing on St Thomas Road and one on Western Road as well as safety works on Newport Road - were included in a major Cornwall Council document called LTP3 - LTP stands for Local Transport Plan and the document sets out the priorities for the Council over the next 20 years.

The works were those that came out top of the list of local priorities after the consultation carried out by Launceston Road Safety Partnership, alongside crossings at Hurdon Way and Westgate Street. It was fantastic to see the hard work of the RSP rewarded by the Council's recognition that these schemes should be included in the first round of work. I had lobbied the Council to include these works and had even welcomed Cllr Hicks to see for himself why they were so urgent.

I don't care what Cllr Hicks thinks of me personally, or of my blog. But I think his position as a cabinet member is untenable if he is prepared to ditch safety schemes because he didn't like what people said about him in a meeting or my blog about it. Cllr Hicks has said injudicious things in the past and has been rapped over the knuckles as a result. But to mete out collective punishment on a town is just beyond the pale.

Ditching the St Thomas Road crossing also puts in jeopardy the multi-million pound Kensey Trail project which is the major Cornwall Council backed scheme to regenerate our town.

How things unfolded:

I wrote a blog entry which reported on a meeting of the Council's Parking Policy Panel at which it was reported that Cllr Hicks wanted to abolish the panel. Cllr Hicks was not present and a number of councillors from all parties criticised him for his absence.

An officer from the Council's communications team sent the text of the blogpost to Cllr Hicks.

Cllr Hicks then sent an email to senior staff, including Environment and Economy Director Tom Flanagan and Head of Policy and Communications Carole Theobald which included the following:

"Tom I am now refusing to help Alex Folkes until he refrains from putting such nonsense on his blog. Forget about me attending any meeting in respect to Kensley Vale and assisting in the inclusion of his schemes in LTP3"

Incidentally, the 'Kensey Vale' meeting he refers to was actually about the adoption of Kensey Valley Meadow and it went extremely successfully without him. It was disappointing that he wasn't there, however, as the Mayor of Launceston had turned up specially to discuss key issues with Cllr Hicks.

I am very grateful to Launceston Town Council for the support they have given me over this issue. Among those who voiced their opposition to Cllr Hicks' actions were Cllr John Conway (who stood in 2009 as a Conservative) and Cllr Graham Facks Martin (formerly the Conservative Leader of NCDC).

Full text of email traffic revealed by Cornish Guardian Freedom of Information request:

From: Hicks Graeme CC
Sent: 07 April 2011 20:41
To: Hewitt Patricia; Fishwick Jen; Theobald Carole; Flanagan Tom; Hicks Graeme CC; Moore Peter
Subject: RE: for information

Quite frankly I have had enough of his rantings and I believe we should respond to these posts.

Tom I am now refusing to help Alex Folkes until he refrains from putting such nonsense on his blog. Forget about me attending any meeting in respect to Kensley Vale and assisting in the inclusion of his schemes in LTP3.

Jen can you cancel my attendance at the Kensley Vale meeting?




Sent from my Windows Mobile® phone.

-----Original Message-----
From: Hewitt Patricia <>
Sent: 06 April 2011 17:26
To: Theobald Carole <>; Flanagan Tom <>; Hicks Graeme CC <>; Moore Peter <>

Subject: for information


Wednesday, 6 April 2011

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?

UPDATE - Read the Cornish Guardian's story here.