Friday, 29 July 2011

Ridgegrove play equipment being installed

The play areas on the Ridgegrove Estate are being worked on and new equipment is being installed. This has been a long running saga, but the out of date and crumbling swings are finally being taken out and replaced.

It's not ideal that the work couldn't be completed before the school holidays, but the Council felt it is better to have the work done now than to wait until schools re-start in September.

It is hoped that the top play area will be completed by the end of next week.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

An apology on behalf of Cllr Graeme Hicks

Yesterday I blogged about the rip-off ticket machines in Launceston car parks which are still charging drivers even when parking is free. I mentioned that I had written to Cabinet Member Graeme 'The Albatross' Hicks for an explanation and apology.

Regrettably, Cllr Hicks has refused to provide either and has now set his email account to indicate that he is on holiday for the next month. His motto appears to be 'Never Apologise, Never Explain'.

He did, however, invite me to apologise on behalf of the authority, so here goes:

I am sorry that Cornwall Council has failed to ensure that it's ticket machines are working properly.
I am sorry that Cornwall Council has failed to take the needs of local shops and residents into account when setting parking charges.
I am sorry that Cornwall Council has more than doubled season ticket prices for our town putting jobs and businesses at risk.
I am sorry that the Cabinet member responsible isn't responsible enough to admit when his service is below par and apologise himself.

Graffiti on Kensey Hill

This afternoon I have reported the spray-painted graffiti on the pavement on Kensey Hill to the Council for removal. It appears to have been painted by the landowner as an attempt to keep access to his property clear. I have every sympathy with them, but painting the pavement is not an acceptable option.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Are Lance's plans foiled?

Bad news, it seems, might be around the corner for Bodmin Tory Councillor Lance Kennedy.

Despite being dumped as a cabinet member in May, the former policeman has made no secret of his ambition to seek the Conservative nomination for police commissioner elections which are due next May.

But now it seems, at least according to Michael Crick, that the Tories might decide not to stand candidates at all.

Mike Hancock vs Norman Baker (in the mind of the Guardian)

The Guardian have come up with a bit of speculative genius in the form of this article.

Yep - it's true that there is a lot of unhappiness among Lib Dems over the proposal to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600, particularly after the way that the Tories behaved in the AV referendum campaign.

But some of the suppositions are simply bonkers.

How does Patrick Wintour imagine:

"In the south east, Lib Dems Mike Hancock and Norman Baker might be fighting for a single seat in the Portsmouth/Lewes area."

For those who do not know the area, there is some pretty huge acreage between Portsmouth and Lewes, not least the city of Brighton and Hove. Not even Governor Elbridge Gerry could make those two areas into a single constituency.

The Launceston car park rip-off continues

Cornwall Council's parking machines in Launceston are continuing to rip-off drivers three weeks after I was promised that the practice would be put to a stop immediately.

When the parking hours were changed on May 9th, the ticket machines should have been altered to reflect the new times. However some were not and so drivers can find themselves paying for time which is supposed to be free. When combined with the very poor signage advertising the change in hours, drivers are finding that they have been ripped off by the council many times over.

I reported this mistake to the Council and had a meeting with a senior parking officer on July 6th at which he assured me that the machines would be corrected immediately.

Yet this afternoon Cornwall Council's rip off ticket machines are continuing to charge for periods when parking is free and failing to issue tickets which allow drivers to park into the following day. The ticket I bought in a test purchase is shown in the photo on the left.

I've written to the Council's Cabinet Member for parking, Graeme Hicks, asking him why this fault has still not been corrected and asking him to issue a formal apology to drivers in Launceston who have been ripped off in this way.

It seems that Cornwall Council's parking service will stop at nothing, both fair means and foul, to get money out of drivers.

Cornwall stadium plan gets a good kicking

The proposed Stadium for Cornwall got a good kicking at today's scrutiny committee meeting as councillors from across the political spectrum railed against the apparent assumption that the project would go ahead and demanded assurances that there would be no further taxpayer funding for it.

This was an interim report mainly aimed at getting councillors to raise questions that they want answered in the final report in the autumn. As such we weren't expecting many answers, but there do appear to be a couple of significant changes to the information given previously.

The first (and possibly most significant) was the language being used. Three officers were involved in the presentation and all seemed to indicate that this project going ahead is a foregone conclusion. When pressed, they stressed that no decision has been made yet, but the language used was still very informative.

One of the points I have been making consistently is about how much a stadium could possibly be used for anyone other than the first teams of the anchor tenants. In the past, officers have always talked about significant community involvement and used this as the reason why the council should provide support for the project. I've made the case, however, that with a rugby and football team sharing the ground, the pitch will not be able to stand any additional use and the most that the community could expect would be a couple of weeks in early summer after the football season has ended.

Today officers admitted that this is, indeed, likely to be the case. Their claim is that community involvement is more likely to be through the club's academy set-ups and on other facilities within the stadium complex (not that any are shown on the current plans). This appears to be a pretty large climbdown and brings into question the whole reason for Cornwall Council involvement.

Many councillors also raised the issue of paying for the stadium. Cornwall Council has made it quite clear that no more taxpayers money (beyond the current £120,000 business case funding) will be used. Yet there is no indication of where the money will come from. The anchor tenants will be asked for bonds, but this will not cover the cost. And so contributions from developers, prudential borrowing and other sources of income are being discussed. Councillors will want a lot of reassurance that these do not represent a backdoor form of public subsidy.

Before I get endless comments, I want to stress that there was widespread agreement with the concept of a stadium in principle and I agree that it would be a good thing. However the issue of who pays is key.

(Note: I should point out that my involvement with Launceston Rugby Club was properly declared at the meeting and the Council's monitoring officer has ruled that it does not prevent me from speaking and, where appropriate, voting on the subject)

Council challenged over bus subsidy cuts

A new bus passenger forum, an inquiry day into bus services and more information on the impact of subsidy cuts are the main outcomes of today's scrutiny meeting into bus services in Cornwall.

In order to avoid bus routes being cut this year, it was also suggested that any shortfall in subsidy should be met from the council's reserves.

The discussion was a pretty encouraging one but which contained some gob-smacking statements from Cabinet member Graeme Hicks. He seemed proud of his negotiating strategy which was based around a letter that the bus companies perceived to be a take it or leave it demand that they accept cuts to their subsidy levels. 'It brought them to the table' appeared to be his attitude. There also appeared to be an attitude that Cornwall Council could run bus services better than the bus companies.

Cllr Bob Egerton led the debate with comments about the difference between this proposal which would cut bus routes and the well-intentioned desire in the Council's local transport plan for far more bus routes in Cornwall. He also pointed out that the bus companies are making almost no profit and the amount that the authority wants to take away from them is more than ten times their annual profit.

Tory Cllr Pat Lambshead raised the issue of people from outside Cornwall coming to use our buses while they are on holiday. He proposed that we might want to restrict the use of free passes to Cornish residents only. It was acknowledged that this is not something currently allowed by the law and councillors also warned that this would be the equivalent of a tourist tax targeted only at older people.

More widely supported was the view that every bus pass holder might be asked to contribute part of their fare (as was the case before 2003) or might have to pay for their pass. My personal view is that this would be wrong in many cases. While there are undoubtedly some people who can afford to pay, there are many Cornish residents who simply cannot afford any contribution towards bus fares and without buses they would be without access to friends, family or employment.

One of my core questions related to why the council is trying to make savings at this point of the year. Our budget was set in February on the basis of the grant levels given by the Government and the level of council tax we are prepared to charge. Apparently officers knew that the figures for reimbursing bus companies were too low but were pinning their hopes on lobbying the government to give them more money. Not surprisingly, the Government refused and so the budget is facing a shortfall. Although not voted on today, my colleague Roy Taylor's proposal that any shortfall be met from reserves this year seemed to be generally supported and will be formally voted on in September. If passed, this would at least ensure that we don't see bus routes disappearing in the near future.

In the meantime, the discussions between the council and the bus companies will continue, but now there will also be discussions with passenger groups and we will hold an inquiry day during the summer.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Kensey Valley Meadow residents meeting

Tonight I went to a great meeting of residents from Kensey Valley Meadow. It was a follow up to the play day and consultation event we held on the development at the end of April and dealt with issues to do with the roads adoption, the possible new play area and the forming of a formal residents association.

The first thing to say is that there was an incredible turnout. I worried that on a nice sunny evening we might have half a dozen people there. But there were more than 40 in total and we had a great discussion.

My thanks to Steve Ewing, Cornwall Council's estate roads manager for our area who came to talk about the progress of road adoption and who answered loads of questions. The long and the short of it is that the original timetable is still being followed so we will see the upper part of the estate formally adopted in late August and the lower part of the estate enter a 12 month maintenance period at around the same time. There were quite a few concerns over what appears to be slow progress on the lower part and we'll chase this up.

We went on to discuss play areas. The consultation and survey was explained by Anicka Dyer from CN4C and highlighted the fact that residents feel there is a shortage of play space, but there are also concerns about how you can safely retrofit play space into a development which was designed without such matters in mind. (A black mark to the former NCDC for allowing the original requirement for play space to drop). The council will now try to work up a scheme based on the responses but residents were reassured that they will be consulted on a final proposal which would also require planning permission.

There were also a lot of willing volunteers to help lead a residents association and another council officer, Alison Gibson, is helping to put this together. I have offered to give a grant from my community chest budget to help the residents association get off the ground because it will be a very important voice for local people. It doesn't mean that I'll be doing any less speaking up for local people, but it does mean that there will be more neighbourliness and community events.

Finally, we had a question and answer session on issues such as grit bins and buses and I have a list of issues to chase up.

Many thanks to everyone for coming along - especially on such a great evening - and to Mark O'Brien for organising it. It was great to put a few more faces to email addresses!

Cornwall buses - 'constructive' talks held

Cornwall Council and bus operators have been holding discussions today following last week's (apparently illegal) attempt by the Council to cut the subsidies given to the operators for carrying free bus pass holders.

According to the statement released this afternoon:

Constructive dialogue has taken place today between Cornwall Council and major bus operators in Cornwall.
The council has to meet reduced budgets and, with the bus operators, will be seeking to minimise any impact on bus passengers.

Discussions are ongoing and a further meeting will be held next week.

Mark Howarth, Managing Director of Western Greyhound and head of Cornwall Passenger Transport, said: “I would like to thank the council for opening the dialogue with us and I look forward to continuing our talks.”

Graeme Hicks, Cornwall Council cabinet member for Transportation and Highways, said: “I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to meet up with the bus operators and look at the problem from their side. We are looking to come up with a reasonable solution.”

Tomorrow a council scrutiny committee will be discussing the issue with particular attention paid to why Cllr Hicks feels the need to make a cut midway through the financial year and why precipitous action was taken which did not involve talking to the bus companies or to passenger groups. However today's statement does seem to back the view that action without talking was hardly the best way to proceed.

Cornwall Tories believe they are above the law

Cornwall Council's Conservative leadership seem to think they are above the law at the moment. As well as using the authority's resources for internal party issues, it now appears that they are ignoring formal legal advice.

This latest issue concerns the role of Cabinet Support Members and whether or not they undertake 'executive functions'. It might seem a bit technical, but it's vital for the executive function of an authority to be separate from the scrutiny function. You cannot have a councillor holding him or herself to account.

In question is the role of Conservative Cllr Steve Double on the corporate resources scrutiny committee. Steve has been on the committee for some time and heads up a panel looking at communications and confidentiality. But in May he was made the Cabinet Support Member for Alternative Service Delivery - a subject area which is scrutinised by the corporate support committee. The CSM role is a bit ambiguous. Are they simply unpaid little helpers for Cabinet members or are they exercising executive functions in their own right. Cllr Alec Robertson, as Leader of the Council, was asked to clarify the CSM role and made it clear that these people would be full Cabinet members were it not for the restriction in numbers to a maximum of ten.

Cornwall Council's legal and scrutiny officers have therefore produced legal advice for Cllrs Robertson and Double which makes it quite clear that he cannot continue to hold both scrutiny and executive roles. Yet last week Cllr Double attended a meeting of the corporate resources committee as a member. I understand that he wants to complete the work of his panel and that's all very well, but such niceities surely can't come at the expense of what is legal.

Clearly Cllrs Robertson and Double think they are above the law. This does Cornwall Council's reputation no favours. I have asked the Council's Head of Legal to take action to formally remove Cllr Double from one of his two roles.

The formal advice given to Cllrs Robertson and Double is as follows (I have taken out the names of individual officers):

The advice that (the Head of Legal) and (the Head of Scrutiny) have given to the Leader is informed by the Local Government Act 2000, Chapter 22, Part II with respect to executives.

This states that, in relation to Overview and Scrutiny Committees,

“Executive arrangements by a local authority must ensure that their overview and scrutiny committee has power (or their overview and scrutiny committees have power between them) (a) to review of scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken, in connection with the discharge of any functions which are the responsibility of the executive…”

It also states that

“An overview and scrutiny committee of a local authority, or a sub-committee of such a committee, may not include any member of the authority’s executive.”

It is our view, therefore, that given the Leader’s recent message where he referred to the role of the Cabinet Support Members as being regarded as Cabinet Members, fully involved in the work of the Cabinet and fully responsible for their Portfolio areas (albeit not being able to make executive decisions or vote at Cabinet) that it is not, therefore, appropriate for them to sit on Scrutiny. The Leader’s message also made it clear that in relation to Scrutiny that they would take full responsibility for attending, liaising with and being held to account by the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committee in respect of their Portfolio areas.

The Leader advised that he would be speaking to Councillor Mann, as Deputy Group Leader, about this situation. The advice has also been passed to Councillor Double.

'Devonwall' public meeting date set

The date for a public hearing into the proposed new parliamentary boundaries has been set. It will take place in Truro at the Alverton Manor Hotel from 10th - 11th November and will be one of four public hearings taking place in the South West region.

The new draft boundaries will be announced in mid September and there will then be a period of public consultation with the public hearings forming part of this. It is expected that at least one 'Devonwall' seat will be proposed.

The public hearings will no doubt see a lot of anger over the Devonwall proposal, but I suspect that the Boundary Commission will not be able to do anything about it due to the new rules (mistaken in my view) setting strict upper and lower limits for seats.

However, the prospect of a Devonwall seat is not a foregone conclusion. The new boundaries can only come into effect following a vote of MPs and the anger over the proposals for change (on a wide range of issues, not just Devonwall) is significant. It may well be that the next general election is fought on the same boundaries as the last.

Has Tory Council Leader abused his office for party purposes?

The row about Cornwall Council's Conservative Leader Alec Robertson's decision to kick Jan Powell off the health committee rumbles on. The latest twist is that the Leader appears to view Cornwall Council as an instrument of his political party.

Jan Powell was the Conservative chair of the committee but lost that position as a result of being removed from the committee by Cllr Robertson. She subsequently defected to the Liberal Democrats. She has now made the following statement about the circumstances of her removal:

"I am releasing this public statement through my solicitor in order to put on record the way that I have been treated by the leader of Cornwall Council, Mr Alec Robertson.

It is widely known that Councillor Robertson reversed his earlier nomination of me to membership, and therefore by default chair, of the Health and Adult Overview Scrutiny Committee. What is not so widely known is the reasons given by Councillor Robertson. That has perhaps left the impression of some perceived wrongdoing on my part. I wish to take this opportunity of putting the record straight.

Councillor Robertson informed me of his decision in a letter written from him on Cornwall Council headed notepaper in his capacity as Leader of the Council. One of the main reasons he gave amounted to the fact that he was calling into question my ability to act impartially given the fact that I have an adult disabled daughter who is a service user of provision made by the Council. He thought that this might mean that I would be unable to consider the need for cuts by Cornwall Council in an unbiased way. I find this allegation both deeply distressing and offensive at the same time.

To suggest that parents of disabled people, or indeed anyone having a close relative receiving or likely to receive a provision in the future, are unable to put that to one side when making rational decisions is a shocking view to hold. I am concerned for the principle this advocates when there exists a very structured process in Cornwall Council to allow people in this position to understand their obligations and to act responsibly and objectively.

I have therefore asked Councillor Robertson to apologise personally. I have also asked Cornwall Council to apologise given the fact that the offending letter was purportedly sent on its behalf.

Cornwall Council has now disassociated itself from the letter making it clear that it had no knowledge of the letter which was written by Councillor Robertson personally and which therefore should neither have been written on their notepaper nor through their resource.

I have received no apology from Councillor Robertson and he has indicated that he will not do so.

It is clear that I cannot work with Councillor Robertson nor his party. I have therefore returned to the Liberal Democrats in order that I can continue serving the public to the best of my ability."

As Radio Cornwall's Graham Smith reports, Cllr Robertson views this issue as an internal party matter and not one for the Council as a whole. So why did he write on Council head paper and sign the letter as Leader of the Council. As MPs have found, the difference between their work as a party politician and as an elected official is a crucial one and many have had to repay the cost of materials used wrongly for party purposes. So will Cllr Robertson now apologise for the misuse of Cornwall Council stationery and repay the costs involved?

Monday, 25 July 2011

'Stop emailing us' begs Cornwall Council Leader - UPDATED

Cornwall Council's Leader tonight begged residents and community groups to stop emailing the authority saying that they could not cope with all the electronic communications they receive.

At a 'Cornwall Conversations' event held in Penzance, the organiser of a community transport group asked Transport Cabinet Member Cllr Graeme Hicks why he had not replied to an email sent to him some time ago. Cllr Hicks reply was that there were a lot of emails that had not been responded to and he had tasked an officer to go through all communications and root out those which needed a response.

To the amazement of those present, Council Leader Alec Robertson added that the Council could not cope with all the emails being sent and advised residents and organisations at the meeting to phone rather than email.

The question arises of what else is not being responded to. As important as transport issues are, some of the council's services are life and death matters. We need reassurance that nothing in adult care or child welfare is slipping through the net as well.

And for an organisation which recently won an award for its crisis communications, its communications now seem to be precipitating a crisis.

UPDATE - Cllr Hicks has asked me to make a correction and I'm happy to do so. He tells me that he apologised to the complainant and has asked an officer to search for the missing email. He has been told this will take up to two weeks.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Senior Indie councillor fails the fact check test

The row over the tourist tax rumbles on. I saw yesterday that the Guardian felt the need to add into a story about the possible St Pirans Day bank holiday a reference to the tourist tax debate and there is a letter in today's Local Government First magazine from Indie councillor John Keeling about the issue.

I support what John has said about the tourist tax being a red herring when we should be concentrating on a change to the way councils are funded and keeping business rates. But it doesn't help when an experienced councillor such as him can't get his facts right.

In his letter, John says:

"We already tax people leaving Cornwall by air through a £5 airport tax and there is a £2 toll when entering the county by car..."

Well yes, there is a £5 airport development fee for passengers flying from Newquay airport.

But how John gets the idea there is a £2 toll for coming in by car I don't know. The toll on the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint ferries is £1.50 to leave Cornwall (and half that with a tag) but there is no charge for coming in and it costs nothing at all for visitors using the busiest road route - the A30.

I suspect that all John's letter will do is to dissuade readers from coming to visit Cornwall.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Launceston Show

Launceston show basked in the sun yesterday as we had our first dry event for four years. It was good to see so many people there and some of the best that the town and surrounding country has to offer was on display.

I was dragged into having a go at bricklaying thanks to the construction unit at Launceston College - many thanks to Alex for putting up with me.

There were, of course, lots of animals of every variety.

And some people who clearly peaked too soon.

'Continental' market in Launceston faces shut down - UPDATED

The 'continental' market in Launceston town square is causing more than a few problems and action is being taken at the moment with a view to shutting them down.

The market was booked in for four days but I and my fellow councillor Sasha Gillard-Loft have had a very large number of complaints after just the first day of operation.

The market brands itself a continental market and sells baclava, sweets, paella and jewellery. Yesterday there were no prices on show and many people complained at being ripped off. I was told of people who were charged £18 for a small amount of turkish delight and others who were charged more than £20 for baclava. Today the prices are being displayed and baclava is priced at £24 per kilo.

I've also been told that much of the produce is not continental in origin at all but available from local cash and carries.

Perhaps the most serious complaint is about health and safety. The produce is left uncovered and with no 'sneeze guards'. I was also sent photos showing the produce was left uncovered overnight and therefore at the mercy of rats, mice and other vermin.

Yesterday I called Cornwall Council's Environmental Health and Trading Standards teams to ask them to take a look at the market. I wasn't the first to get in touch with them. This morning the man from environmental health was in deep discussions with the traders with a view to shutting them down.

I continue to support the idea of using our town square as much as possible, including for travelling markets. This particular group is not welcome back however.

UPDATE - The market has now been shut down

In praise of tweeting policemen

A quick blog in praise of another blogger and tweeter. Sgt Gary Watts is a community police officer in Falmouth and has embraced the whole social media thing incredibly well.

Gary isn't the first tweeting policeman and he's not doing anything earth shattering. But he is doing the basics very well indeed and his blog (just started) sets out in the clearest possible language why it is a good idea for police officers to blog. The arguments he uses apply to just about every other type of public too.

So please have a look at his blog and follow him on Twitter too. And don't forget that our own Launceston Police are on Facebook

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Hicks backs down over bus route subsidies (at least for the moment)

Cornwall Council has backed down in the row over disappearing bus subsidies after a day of outrage across the airwaves. Councillors received an email just after 5pm this evening from Cllr Graeme Hicks, Cabinet Member for Transportation, saying:

"I have called for a temporary halt in the process so I can reflect on the best way forward"

That is the good news and something for which Cllr Hicks has form. The bad news is the the Council still seems to be intent on making draconian cuts and the bus companies have confirmed that their reaction would be to slash services and one threatened to pull out of Cornwall altogether.

The day started with the issue hitting the West Briton and Radio Cornwall having debuted on Westcountry TV last night. The major bus companies confirmed that they had both received the letter I reproduced in my last post.

I understand that Cllr Hicks was then called in for 'urgent consultations' with the Chief Executive. He then made a statement to Radio Cornwall that 'an officer letter' had been sent to the bus companies which contained 'a proposed course of action' and they were now meeting with the bus companies to discuss the way forward. I hardly think it appropriate for Cllr Hicks to blame officers for this. It does give the impression that he doesn't know what is happening in his department.

Both major bus companies have confirmed that they didn't think the letter was an opening gambit but instead a final statement of what would be forced upon them. Hence their reaction by saying that they would be cutting 17 routes in one case and 20 in another. It was put to the boss of First Group that they might pull out of Cornwall altogether and he agreed they might do so.

The Director of Travelwatch South West was also interviewed and he suggested that the Council's actions might also be illegal as they do not give adequate notice.

Cllr Hicks is making the claim that these cuts have been forced on Cornwall Council by government cuts. We all know that the Government has made cuts in the amount of grant it gives to Cornwall, but this cut was made back in January and the Council adopted a budget based on those cuts in February. So why the sudden need to save money halfway through the year?

And so, after a day of to-ing and fro-ing, Cllr Hicks sent his email to all members announcing his backdown. I can't pretend that all is now well, but at least the bus routes are not in danger of imminent cuts and the council is going to talk to the bus companies about how to go forward - something many of us think should have been the first action, not the last.

I also understand that this issue will be on the agenda for scrutiny committee next Wednesday.

Bus routes to be slashed as Cornwall Council cuts funding

Bus routes across Cornwall are likely to be slashed following Cornwall Council's latest ill-judged decision to cut the funding they give to bus companies for carrying 'free' passengers. As a result, passengers in many rural areas are likely to suffer and I've written to Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks asking him to re-consider his decision.

There is a national bus pass scheme which entitles holders (including those over 60 and people with disabilities) to free travel after 9.30 in the morning. Until this year, Cornwall Council operated a slightly better scheme which allowed free travel at all times for pass holders. However this was scaled back to the national standard in the recent budget cuts as an alternative to scrapping subsidies for weekend and evening services.

In return for carrying these 'free' passengers, bus companies are given a subsidy payment. This was 73.5% of the standard fare for the journey.

Cornwall Council's Cabinet Member for Transportation, Cllr Graeme Hicks, recently sent an email to members saying that he didn't think that the current level of payments to bus companies was sustainable. He asked councillors what they thought on the issue. One key quote from Cllr Hicks' briefing to councillors was:

"It is proposed to consult with the bus operators with a view to introducing the revised level of reimbursement at the end of August 2011."

Now it turns out that he has sent letters to bus companies telling them that he has already made the decision to cut their subsidy from the 73.5% figure to around 44%. Not only that, but he is back-dating the cuts to April. There has been no consultation with the bus companies and I don't think there is any understanding about the likely impact of these cuts on services. Bus travel will still be free to pass holders, but without the buses, the passes will become pointless.

On the one hand Cllr Hicks talks about consulting with bus companies, but on the other he has sent them a letter making it quite clear that the decision is already made. His comment: "It's the times we live in."

What will be the impact of these cuts? Quite simply, if bus companies have their subsidy cut, they will cut those routes that rely on subsidy to operate. In other words, routes to the most rural villages and communities. It won't just be bus pass holders who will lose out. Poorer households will find it much harder to get to work and will become even more cut off from families and friends. Rural life will become even more difficult.

This is hardly the 'Big Society' in action. Instead, it appears to be a contraction to cut adrift those people living in rural and remote communities. It could be that a scheme that was designed to help the elderly get about by bus will end up with no buses at all.

The letter sent to bus companies (anonymised):
Cllr Hicks briefing note in full:
Concessionary Fares - Note to Members 130711

The piece that ran on Westcountry last night is here.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Town Council update

Tonight was Launceston Town Council's monthly meeting and as usual I went along to give a report about what Cornwall Council is doing.

There was some good news - the decision to approve compulsory purchase powers to ensure the Kensey Trail gets built - some bad news - the continued failure of the Council to get parking machines working properly and some interesting opportunity for the future - a presentation by the people in charge of the superfast broadband programme about what is happening in Launceston.

Apart from broadband (which is a great scheme), the most interesting discussion was about the Government's Localism Bill (stay with me please). This will give far more powers to local town and parish councils and, through them, to ordinary voters. There are some opportunities - such as the chance for local people to be at the heart of deciding what will happen to their community. There are also some risks - such as that big multinationals will abuse the power for local communities to take control of local services and grab them for themselves.

'Free' solar panels may be too good to be true

Cornwall Council has just sent out the following press release. I'm reprinting it because there may be approaches made to local readers of this blog.

Householders across Cornwall are being warned to take care before agreeing to have ‘free’ solar panels installed on their property.

Trading Standards and Consumer Direct have issued the warning following a spate of telephone calls from concerned householders with issues about approaches they have received.

"Although there are companies genuinely offering to install solar panels for free, there appears to be other companies exploiting the opportunity” explained Martine Barnes from Trading Standards.

“In some cases the solar panel companies claim that they can get a grant from the council to help pay for the panels. We can confirm this is definitely not the case and that Cornwall Council is not offering any grants for the installation of Solar Panels.”

“Other householders are being offered ‘free installation and maintenance for 25 years with the panels being paid for from the surplus electricity which is sold back to the national grid’. We recommend that anyone being made such a fantastic offer should thoroughly read the small print of any contract before signing up, and if possible get a solicitor to cast an eye over it as well.”

Some of the things that should be made clear in the contract are:
  • who is responsible for the installation and who is paying for it
  • who is responsible for anything that goes wrong as a result of the panels (such as a leaking roof if the panels are not installed professionally)
  • how often the panels need to be maintained and who pays for this
  • what happens at the end of the contract period - who owns the panels, who is responsible for removing/disposing of them and who is responsible for restoring the roof
  • any costs that will fall to the householder.
Anyone with concerns about an approach they have received should contact Consumer Direct for advice on 08454 04 05 06. Trading Standards is monitoring the complaints received and will take action against any company found to be making misleading claims.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Cornwall Council should withdraw from tobacco investments immediately

Yesterday's Observer carried a story about local authority investment in tobacco firms. The article claimed that Cornwall Council has £24.5 million invested in tobacco firms through it's pension fund - the biggest investment by a local authority and approximately one fifth of all the money invested by councils in such companies.

I think it is appalling that Cornwall Council does not yet have an ethical investment strategy. I called a number of months ago for action to be taken to make sure that we don't invest in dodgy regimes such as the one in Bahrain. At the time I got a slightly hopeful response from the Cabinet member responsible. However it appears that nothing has yet been done.

Investment in tobacco firms is as bad, if not worse. Although smoking is perfectly legal in the UK, our Council is taking on responsibility for public health issues including stop smoking services. How can we be trying to stop something with one hand whilst hoping tobacco firms make bigger and bigger profits with the other?

I've written today to Cllr Currie and to Cornwall Council's Pensions Committee asking them to adopt an ethical investment strategy as soon as possible and to withdraw from tobacco firm investments immediately.

UPDATE: This story has also been followed up by 'The Skipper' column in the Packet and on ThisisCornwall where the Council's reaction seems to be 'only 2% of our investments are promoting death'.

Launceston One Stop Shop move confirmed

Cornwall Council has formally confirmed their plan to move Launceston's One Stop Shop to the library as a money saving measure.

I think that, if the circumstances, this is a fair decision to make. There are plenty of cuts being made and, whilst the Conservative led administration are axing front line services in some cases, this move ensure that both One Stop Shop and library services remain intact.

My only concern at the move, and one which I have raised with officers ever since the proposal was first suggested, is about access to the library building. Whereas the old One Stop Shop location was a level walk from the town centre, our library is up a steep slope which can prevent some people with limited mobility getting to it. It does have car parking, but this can become very full very quickly and not everyone has access to a car.

I've asked the Council what measures they are taking to make it easier for people to get to the library but have so far not had a reply.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Performing Arts Library plans are not yet a foregone conclusion

As I blogged before, Cornwall Council's communities scrutiny committee yesterday looked at the threat to the Performing Arts Library that had been highlighted by the Cornish Guardian and by a large number of local arts organisations.

We heard reassurances from Communities Director Gill Steward that the service was not about to be closed (indeed, she said that it 'would never' be closed). We also had assurances that, if relocated, it would remain open to the public, with expert assistance, for at least as many hours per week as it currently is.

However, there remain concerns about the service and its future. Relocating from St Austell to Threemilestone will make it a lot less accessible to many current users and there seems to be confusion about what materials will remain in St Austell. I also raised the apparent contradiction between the statement made by the Director - that this is not a change designed to save money - and Cabinet Support Member Steve Double - that £1.5 million needs to be saved somehow. Cllr Double gave me an assurance that he had been quoted out of context.

There are also concerns about other specialist libraries and Indie Cllr John Pollard asked about the future for these - would they also be relocated to a 'central' point?

At the end of the debate the committee backed my proposal that we note the assurances we have been given and the plan to set up a group to consult all current users but ask for a full report on this and other specialist facilities to come back to the committee before any final decisions are taken.

My reading of this whole issue is that our intervention has forced the Council to look more deeply at a scheme they thought would be easy but which is a lot more contentious and more complicated than first thought.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Summons needed to force organisation head to appear before committee

Surprisingly, this is not a post about Rupert Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks. In fact, the person who has been summonsed to appear before a committee is Cornwall Council's Tory Leader Alec Robertson.

Cllr Robertson had been asked to appear before the authority's Communities Scrutiny Committee to answer questions about his new cabinet structure and how services such as libraries and leisure (which are now dealt with by non-voting cabinet members) will be represented. Cllr Robertson refused to attend and sent a note instead.

At today's meeting, councillors refused to accept his note and, in accordance with our constitution, the Chair has issued a summons via our legal officer for Cllr Robertson to attend the next meeting in August.

Chickens! (or should people in rural areas have to live with rural noises)

This morning we spent two hours discussing whether people who live in rural areas should be able to complain about the noise of farm animals including chickens.

The debate stemmed from a 1050 name petition submitted in support of a resident of Probus who has been served with a noise abatement notice because of the noises made by his cockerels and chickens. The officers explained that they had to follow particular guidelines and felt they had to issue a noise abatement notice in this case. I accept that our officers have to follow policy but feel that the policy is wrong.

I argued that people who live in rural areas should expect to have to put up with reasonable amounts of animal noise and that the sort of noises they should expect to live with are different from those of us who live in urban areas. You cannot move to a farming area and expect to be able to change the character of that area by shutting down the noises.

But what is a reasonable level of noise? I have asked for a policy to be developed which recognises the difference between what is reasonable in urban and rural areas. I suggested that local parish and town councils be consulted on this as well as all Cornwall Council members. This was supported by the majority of the committee and so a new policy will be developed.

Unfortunately, the Cabinet Support Member for Community Safety wasn't at the meeting to reply to the debate or give us his views on the policy but I hope that he will take on board what we said.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Leader gambling Cornwall leisure service and museums on profits from new business ventures

The future of Cornwall's leisure service and of Cornwall's museums are being gambled on the success of a couple of highly risky new schemes. That appears to be the message being given by Cornwall Council Leader at today's Cabinet meeting.

Flushed with being labelled a 'can do' council by his new "chum" Eric Pickles, Cllr Robertson appears to be willing to gamble services which are hugely important to many people on high risk schemes which have yet to be proven anywhere in the country. And all this from an authority with a history of missing key financial savings deadlines.

Two major items on today's agenda concern money-saving plans. One I have already written about. It is the plan to work with a private company to bid for contracts with other local authorities, health providers, police etc. The idea is that jobs will be created in Cornwall by winning contracts and that around £2.5 million will be saved from our current budget. My argument against this idea is that it is based on huge assumptions and will cost around half a million pounds just to set up with no guarantees of winning a single contract.

Another scheme involves our highways department. A new company will be set up to bid for outside work and the assumption being made is that it will make around £44 million of profit over the next seven years.

Earlier in the meeting I raised the issue of the failure of the council to meet savings budgets in the field of shared services and moving to a leisure trust. I am concerned that Council budgets are being put together with unrealistic expectations of the amount of money that can be saved and the timescale for doing so.

So I asked Council Leader Alec Robertson what would happen if the proposed savings (or income) weren't made or the timetable slipped. He pointed out that the £7 million per year figure is almost exactly the same as the council's entire budget for leisure services and culture. Just in case we didn't get the message the first time, he made the same point to my colleague Bob Austin a bit later.

It would appear from these statements that Cornwall Council is setting the future of its leisure and culture services against some highly risky ventures. If they don't come off then it will be leisure centres and museums that will be for the chop.

Just because you're paranoid...

On four occasions at today's meeting I counted Cornwall Council Cabinet members pleading with the media to give them good reports.

Every week councillors receive a briefing from the Leader listing news stories and a total for 'good news' and a total for 'bad news'. The number of bad news stories has never reached above eight, but this relies on some charitable interpretation of what is good news and what is bad (the decision by the Secretary of State to rule against Cornwall on the incinerator was somehow felt to be good).

Perhaps this spin is no longer working on Conservative members?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Government recognises Cornwall's case on Police Board reps

Last week I wrote that Cornwall was set to be under-represented on the the new Police Boards which will monitor the work of elected police commissioners.

In a nutshell, Cornwall was set to get just one of twelve local authority representatives with each of the Devon councils and the Council of the Isles of Scilly also getting a single rep. I brought this up with Lib Dem Local Government Minister Andrew Stunell at the LGA conference and he promised to look into it.

Good news that the Government has relented and there will now be up to 20 councillors on the new boards which will allow a more balanced representation, proportionate to population.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Council gambling with taxpayers' money over joint venture company

Cornwall Council is today pushing its plans for a new joint venture company with a private sector firm to make bids to run services for other councils, health services, fire authorities and police forces. Despite not yet having been approved by the Cabinet, officers are on the airwaves advocating the new scheme which they hope might save money and create jobs.

I'm a lot more sceptical about it because I think it's a huge risk to be taking at a time when Cornwall Council should be concentrating on providing high quality services that fit the needs of the people of Cornwall, not pie in the sky bids to win contracts in Lambeth, Leeds or Lossiemouth.

The plan is to join forces with a big consultancy firm and to bid to run services such as call centres, human resources and IT for other public sector bodies. The Council's press release is full of 'coulds' and 'maybes' which sound great. But they fail to mention the fact that it will cost at least half a million pounds just to set up the new joint venture and there is no certainty at all that they will win a single contract.

Far from being unique or innovative, there are plenty of local authorities around the country doing work for others. Last week at the Local Government Association Conference I met people from Essex who run library services for Slough and people from Norfolk who run property services for councils up and down the UK and there are many more. In a crowded marketplace Cornwall will struggle to win making this a very high risk operation. Cornwall's so-called unique approach appears to be based on helping big consultancy firms, not local residents.

The Council is boasting that there are lots of private sector companies wanting to become our partners in this new joint venture. I'm not surprised. They'll get access to our highly skilled workforce and get to cream off the profits if any bids are successful.

I have no doubt that the Cabinet will nod this through as the officers want them to. But I think that we should think much more carefully about the potential implications for staff and risks involved before spending taxpayers' money in this way.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Launceston's rip-off car parks to be tamed

Car parks in Launceston which charge drivers when they shouldn't will have their ticket machines changed as a matter of urgency. That's the promise I've just received from Cornwall Council's parking manager. I've also received a promise that any driver who has paid when they shouldn't (and still has the ticket) will get a refund.

The charging hours for Launceston's Cornwall Council owned car parks were changed on May 9th. One of the key changes was that charges now end at 4pm. As I blogged, there are still plenty of people who were putting money in the machines at, say 4.15pm and getting a ticket that said their expiry time was 5.15pm. This was because the programming on the machines had not been altered.

What should have happened is twofold. There should have been a better publicity campaign for the new charging hours and the machines should have provided a ticket indicating an expiry time the next morning.

The Council can't tell me how many people paid when they didn't have to - apparently the machines don't store that information. But I know that there are still people who pay when they don't have to even two months later. These people are being ripped off and Cornwall Council owes them an apology.

As a matter of urgency, officers have agreed to check the ticket machine programming and they have also agreed to provide a refund for anyone wrongly charged. Unfortunately, you will have to produce the ticket and most people will have thrown it away long ago.

Note - The multi-storey car park in Launceston is owned and managed by the Town Council and has different hours and charging. Different parking hours apply in other towns across Cornwall.

Cuts to Cornwall's Performing Arts Library to be investigated

Proposed cuts to Cornwall's performing arts library will be debated at the council's Communities Scrutiny meeting on March 14th. The library is said to be facing major changes in a bid to cut spending.

Like many Cornwall Councillors, I've received many emails from concerned users of a pretty unique facility. Based at St Austell Library, the performing arts library holds lots of sheet music and scripts for plays. It is used by amateur dramatics groups, bands and academics and saves each user many hundreds of pounds. If a group is looking for a play to perform, they can study and read through a whole range of options without having to buy expensive scripts simply by using the library.

My understanding of the proposed cost saving is to move the library to Threemilestone and cut opening hours. It is also proposed that staff numbers would be cut back. The council's response is of the 'cuts need to be made somewhere' variety.

In order to clarify the situation and to allow councillors to have their say on the proposals, I have asked for an item on the proposed performing arts library cuts to come to the Communities Scrutiny Committee next week. We will hopefully know more then.

Second Home owners will face additional hurdle to voting

Second home owners in Cornwall will face an additional hurdle before being able to vote in elections in Cornwall. That was the decision made today by the Council's Electoral Review Panel and which will now be recommended to full council for approval.

There has been concern for some time that second home owners are registering and voting in Cornwall when they should not be. The legal position is that homes which are owned purely for recreational reasons should not carry an entitlement to vote - but that has not been enforced in Cornwall until recently.

Of the 13,576 registered second homes, 2,653 were used as a base for electoral registration until last year. During the last annual canvass (the procedure that creates the new electoral register), a note was sent to all householders reminding them of the law. Some 947 households that had previously registered chose not to this time. That's a good start, but the Council still took the view that anyone who filled in the form correctly still had to be included on the register.

So we asked what more we could do. A legal opinion confirmed that we cannot simply refuse to register properties which are listed as second homes (ie they claim a discount on their council tax). But what we can do is carry out further checks and if people do not provide enough proof or do not respond to the Council's requests then they will be removed from the register.

That's a huge step in the right direction and should ensure that the vast majority of second home owners who should not be on the electoral register are removed during the next registration period. It will involve a lot of hard work for elections staff, but these are some of the best in the country and I'm confident they can do so. But with police commissioner elections next year and Cornwall Council and parish and town elections in 2013, the cleaning up of our register can't come soon enough.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Barefoot Games party at Eden

The finale party for the Barefoot Games volunteers was held on Saturday night at the Eden Project.

Barefoot Games was an Eden Project run by Launceston locals Jeni and Beth Lewitt and Ben Robbins. It sought to use the talents of local young volunteers to improve the local area and to give these volunteers new skills.

Among the projects in Launceston were the art auction in aid of Shelterbox, the gardening at the Orchard Centre, the Pisky Piran event, street art amongst many other events. Groups around Cornwall had their own projects and events and all came together for a party on Saturday. Also invited were people (like me) who had helped the volunteers in one way or another.

During the evening there were a number of films shown including this one by local animator Paschal Dooley. Many thanks to him for letting me reproduce it here.

Radio Cornwall's parking day

This morning I was interviewed on Radio Cornwall as part of their day long look at parking in Cornwall. They were asking about our Free after 4 campaign. I think they thought we in Launceston are unique in having parking charges ending at 4pm. In fact, Launceston is one of a number of towns across Cornwall where the finishing time has been brought forward by an hour. What makes our town different is that we are trying to support our local shops and businesses (as well as stopping drivers being ripped off) by advertising the change.

But whilst I was on, we talked about the broader principle of the level of charges for Cornwall car parks. I reject the rather spurious claim being made by Cllr Graeme Hicks - the Cabinet member for parking - that the consequences of what we are calling for is a potential loss to the Council of £15 million.

There are three reasons why this is a straw man argument. First - the £15 million figure is pie in the sky. The biggest income that parking has ever made is around £12.5 million. Second, even that is not all profit. The parking service has expenditure of more than £5 million per year. So the 'profit' is only around £7-£7.5 million.

That's still a lot of money, but, and this is the third reason, no one is seriously suggesting that car parking could be made free. We are arguing that the costs should be realistic so that they don't unfairly penalise visitors, residents, shops or businesses. In my opinion, the best option for the Council this year would have been to freeze all parking charges. I fully accept that others, including Cllr Hicks, have a different point of view. But even if they can make more money out of parking this year, I believe that the long term cost to our shops and businesses will be much greater than any short term gain to the Council.

The Government announced last week that it is proposing to localise business rates. At the moment, business rates are collected by councils but passed straight on to central government. By localising this money (and cutting the central grant), it will force authorities to be a lot more responsive to the needs of local shops and employers. In the area of car parking, I hope that Cornwall Council will pay greater heed to businesses sooner rather than later.

You can hear my contribution to Radio Cornwall by clicking here and scrolling forward to about 2 hours 10 minutes

Friday, 1 July 2011

That Ed Milliband interview - perfect mash-up

Cornwall to be under-represented on new Police Boards

Cornwall is set to be hugely under-represented on new Police Boards unless the Government amends the legislation to reform the way police forces are held to account.

The Government plans to bring in new elected Police Commissioners - one for each police force including our own Devon and Cornwall force. These people will be held to account by a Police Board comprising one councillor from each authority covered by the force area. Because no differentiation is made between districts, counties and unitary councils, that means that Cornwall will have a single representative, as will The Isles of Scilly, Torbay and Plymouth councils, Devon County Council and each of the small district councils in Devon.

I raised this issue with local government minister Andrew Stunell during this week's local government conference and he promised to look into it. Lance Kennedy - Cornwall Council's Cabinet Support Member for Community Safety - has now written to the Home Secretary on the issue. His letter is below:

Theresa May 01.07.11

Was Milliband set up by BBC?

This piece of BBC film looks horrendous, but there's a case to be made for saying that Ed Milliband has been set up by the corporation. I don't know if that's true, but it's the only explanation I can come up with for why Mr Milliband should appear to be giving such a terrible interview. He's being pilloried for it on a number of political websites.

Why I think he has been set up

TV news programmes will usually want a short sharp statement (a soundbite) from key figures, rather than a full interview with lots of questions. So they will despatch a crew to interview the politician - often without anyone who regularly appears on screen. Instead, a producer will ask the question (which itself is not broadcast) in order to get the politician's statement on tape. Sometimes the politicians will fluff their lines. Other times, the producer will want them to say the same thing in a slightly different way or slightly shorter and so they will ask a number of questions which all get a version of the same reply.

In this case, Ed Milliband clearly had his core message - the strikes are wrong but both sides are to blame and they need to get round the negotiating table because real people are suffering - and he repeated that in a number of ways. Clearly, he was under the impression (whether explicit or not) that only one reply would be broadcast.

I don't know who the interviewer on the tape is - I don't recognise the voice - but the questions are clearly not designed for broadcast. If they were, they would be far more clipped and precise. And however much some might criticise Milliband, he's not such a terrible interviewee as to reply as he did if he thought more than one statement would make it to the screen.

UPDATE - As has been pointed out in the comments below, the reporter who carried out the interview has blogged himself to say that there was no set up, just a very unconvincing Labour Leader who parroted the same statement time after time.