Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Sorting the teething troubles on the new Ridgegrove play equipment

This evening I've been looking at the new play areas on the Ridgegrove Estate to see how the equipment is bedding in. The good news is that the kids still love it. The bad news is that there are a few teething troubles. I've written to the council to get them sorted.

The biggest problem appears to be the replacement turf that has been laid in strips where the old equipment was removed. This is very thin and hasn't 'taken' in large areas - particularly on the lower play area. One small area appears to be the result of people ripping the turf up, but in the main it's simply not been good enough turf. The photo on the left shows what I mean.

There are also a couple of minor problems with the equipment itself:

- a leg of the Eagles Nest isn't as secure as it could be,
- the top of the Witches Hat needs oiling,

and we still need a bin and dog bin.

The other concern that has been raised is over the boundary fence - in other words the original fence next to the hedge rather than the new yellow fence. This has sharp edges and isn't so 'child-friendly' and we're looking to see if we can get this altered.

I hope that we can get these fixed as soon as possible

Huge pothole outside White Horse - reported

This evening I've reported the huge pothole that has appeared on the corner of Newport Square outside the White Horse pub. Knowing how well the highways section of Cornwall Council works, I know they'll be on the case very quickly.

In praise of Vince and the FSB - a tale of whingeing bankers

Hooray yet again for Saint Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary, who is apparently fighting the good fight within Government for worthwhile banking reform to happen as soon as possible. A pleasant word also for the Federation of Small Businesses for backing him up by pointing out that the bankers' words in this case don't hold water.

The Bankers, their paid lobbyists in the CBI and their apologists in the Tory Party, are claiming that they shouldn't be subject to significant reform. And if they lose that case (which it seems they will), they want any reform to be delayed until those pesky Lib Dems are out of government.

Step forward Vince who is not prepared to wait until 10 years after the banking crisis started to see reform implemented.

There is legitimate debate about what sort of reform is right. We have the Stern Review (what a great name for an inquiry) reporting very soon and they are expected to agree with Vince that the retail arms of the banks should be separated in some way from the casino elements that brought our economy to its knees.

Stern is also likely to suggest that the banks should, er, bank some of their money in order to guard against another rainy day. Oh no, whinge the banks. If you do that then we won't have as much money to lend to businesses and so the economy won't recover very fast. Their lapdogs in the CBI are particularly keen to make this point.

Up steps the excellent man from the corner shop, sorry, FSB, who points out that business lending makes up only 5% of the total and that the banks seem to be pretty reluctant to lend anything to anyone at the moment anyway. After all, they are too busy getting their squillionaire bonus payment cheques written.

But Chancellor George has been lobbied very hard whilst he was on his hols and he seems inclined to put the reforms on hold. And so it will fall to the Lib Dems to sound the clarion call for common sense (and the common man) once again.

And it has the added bonus of annoying the Daily Mail.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Lib Dems demolish Tory claims on Olympic torch spend

Congratulations to my colleague Edwina Hannaford who has demolished the claims being made by the Conservatives on Cornwall Council as they try to justify spending £135,000 or more on hosting the Olympic torch for a single day.

The Conservatives claim that Cornwall will get more than 10,000 extra visitors and each will spend £275 per night when they are here. Edwina has proved that visitors actually spend far less than that (just £94 per night in hotels and B&Bs and £54 per night in self-catering). The Tories seem to think that the mere presence of the torch will convince visitors to spend three to six times as much as they would normally do - 'Olympic rapture' anyone?

The Conservatives are also claiming that 10,000 or more people will travel from Devon to watch the procession in Cornwall - conveniently forgetting that the torch will go straight from Cornwall to, er, Devon and so they can stay at home and see the procession pass through their own town the next day.

As much as we want to use the start of the Olympic torch procession to boost our visitor numbers, it seems that the Conservatives are resorting to made up numbers to justify spending thousands of pounds on the procession which could otherwise be spent on frontline services.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Reshuffle in Cornwall (part 94)

It appears that Cornwall Council's Leader, Alec Robertson, newly adorned with a beard after his summer holiday, is a bit confused.

He had been summoned to today's Communities scrutiny meeting to explain how the different services would be represented on the Cabinet following the reshuffle in May. (We had asked nicely for him to come to the previous meeting but he refused so we had to invoke the Council's summonsing power.)

I asked him to explain who was responsible for libraries, for culture and for leisure. He explained that for some services there was more than one person with direct responsibility. For example in libraries, Joan Symons is responsible for policy and Steve Double for service delivery. At which point Cllr Symons whispered loudly to him that this wasn't true and Cllr Double is responsible for the whole lot. After a short, one might suggest pained, silence the Leader suggested that he might write a note for the committee.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Cornwall Council doesn't need a £20k Olympic torch organiser

The Western Morning News has unearthed a move by Cornwall Council to employ someone to manage the Olympic Torch procession through Cornwall at a cost of £20,000.

This seems like completely unnecessary expenditure and is the wrong way of approaching the matter.

There is no doubt that the Olympic Torch coming to Cornwall is a good thing and we should try to make the most of it to showcase our appeal to visitors as well as to engage residents and businesses. What's more, because Cornwall is at the very start of the procession, we'll get far more attention than others later in the route.

What will be needed are people to organise events, people to work with the media and people to work with local communities on the route. That sounds to me like using the skills of lots of existing council employees, not a single new person (particularly not one on the comparatively lowly salary of £20k).

I trust that it won't end up with men on stilts

Council set to axe all library managers

Cornwall Council is proposing to axe the entire team of 30 library managers. This entire highly skilled and experienced team is being cut and allowed to apply for just eleven new roles such as stock manager, youth services manager or locality manager. The remaining 19 managers are set to be made redundant.

Instead of having a library manager, each branch will, in the future, have a senior library assistant in charge.

I've talked to a large number of people in the library service since I first heard about these plans at the end of last week and not one of them thinks this is a good move. Many are worried that we are letting go an exceptionally talented team. No matter how good their replacements, they will be less experienced and have less training. It seems pretty obvious to me that the level of service for residents will fall.

The other key point (although I accept this is more of a procedural issue) concerns how this decision is being taken. The Communities scrutiny committee has discussed savings within the libraries budget many times over the past year, but this proposal has never been mentioned. I have asked members of the specialist library panel, but they have been kept in the dark too. It seems very wrong that a change that is highly likely to have a significant effect on services is being kept from councillors.

I have written to the cabinet support member in charge of libraries asking him for details and have also asked for this issue to be put on the agenda for the Communities Scrutiny Meeting on Thursday.

UPDATE: This is how BBC Cornwall have carried the story online.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Graeme Hicks - The Beeching of the Bus Routes

Today's bus services inquiry day at County Hall was really useful with a good turnout from councillors, bus companies, user groups and officers - in fact everyone except the Cabinet member responsible, Graeme Hicks.

We had presentations from the bus companies which all pretty much said the same thing - they don't make huge profits and if the reimbursement rate is cut then they will have to cut services. They also made it clear that they are prepared to try to make some savings without having an impact on the route network but they can only do this if they are properly consulted by the Council.

Early on there was a very apt description of what the Council is planning when a representative from Group Travel (based in Bodmin and the operators of Launceston's town bus service) described Cllr Hicks' proposed cuts as 'the Beeching of the Bus Routes'.

We heard from community bus operators (including the Launceston Little Red Bus) who said that if the reimbursement rate is cut then they would have to cease providing services, and that the Government gave £368,000 to Cornwall for the development of community transport but the council spent the money on other things.

We heard from officers that 'we don't know the impact of the cuts until we make them' - a horrific admission that actually Cornwall Council is operating blind. It appears that officers in the transport department don't talk to those in the education department to find out what the likely impact would be on their budgets if these cuts are forced through. Could the impact of cutting buses mean even more spending on taxis?

There was a lot of concern expressed about the procedure that has been followed here. If the Council has known about the likely shortfall in budget since February, why did they only issue a diktat demand to the bus operators a few weeks ago? Why was today's meeting the first opportunity for councillors to discuss this issue and why was scrutiny sidelined again?

We asked for a full equality and economic impact assessment on each proposed (or possible) cut because the impact will be different for different routes.

Finally, what is the impact of these cuts on the council's long-term transport plan LTP3 - Connecting Cornwall? The bus operators made it clear that they cannot stop and start routes at the drop of a hat and if a bus route is cut then it is not likely to reappear. When we are meant to be building our route network, why are we starting off by cutting it.

Cornwall Council spends £5.5 million on vehicles in 2 years

Conservative led Cornwall Council has spent £5,527,102 on new vehicles in just over two years since it was established according to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats.

Among the figures released was the revelation that Cornwall Council's planning and regeneration service has spent almost £400,000 on new cars this year alone and that officers in the adult social care department spent more than £235,000 on new cars since the authority was founded in April 2009.

Any authority, particularly a large unitary council like Cornwall, is going to have to spend money on specialist vehicles. But at a time of austerity, it seems incredible that Cornwall's spending on new cars is as high as this, particularly as the Council is trying to cut bus routes for ordinary people at the same time.

We totally support the need to make sure that our fire and rescue service has the most modern and best equipped vehicles to do their job and that mending roads takes specialist equipment. But the vast majority of this spending is not on specialist vehicles but on regular road cars. To spend £400,000 on new cars for planning officers in 2011 alone seems hugely excessive.

I know that many officers use pool cars which work out cheaper in the long run, but how much of this total is for take home cars which are used by a single officer?

Before Cornwall Council cuts more bus services or key staff they need to look at the amount they are spending on new cars. Let's look at extending the life of some of our existing vehicles rather than immediately reaching for the payment card.


In its reply to the FoI request, Cornwall Council claimed that 'Childrens Schools and Families provision also includes the costs of vehicles (minibuses etc) which may have been purchased on behalf of a school and then recharged to them.' The total spending by the CSF department was £633,930.

A total of £1,740,332 spent on 39 specialist vehicles for the Fire and Rescue Service is excluded from the FoI response.

The full details are below (click on each image to see more detail)

The West Briton article on this story is here.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Sod subtlety - VOTE FOR ME!

Apologies to you dear reader for the lack of blogging recently. I've been quiet due to a combination of August-itis and man-flu.

If you can forgive me, would you care to cast a vote in the annual blog awards run by Total Politics. The voting closes tomorrow at midnight, so you don't have long.

You have to vote for at least five blogs or bloggers and I would be most humbled if you would vote for me. After all - I've got to live up to last year's showing (see the glory wall on the right).

Appeal to supermarkets for more foodbank help

Last week I blogged about the proposal to set up a new Foodbank in Launceston.

This week, there have been reports of shortages in stocks held by the various foodbanks across Cornwall because of high demand. I'm very pleased to see the Cornwall Council Cabinet Member Armand Toms has, together with Bishop Tim, written to the bosses of all the main supermarkets asking if they could help out more.

It's already the case that some of the biggest supporters of Foodbanks are supermarkets, but at times like these when many families are feeling the pinch and some are falling into crisis, it's important that every section of society does what it can to help.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Here's a speech prepared by the Daily Mail earlier

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Franklin

Just how far can the riots push Britain to the political right. At the moment, MPs and commentators are falling over themselves to come up with ever more barmy ideas for how to stop the riots. One Tory MEP wants the mass slaughter of all those out on the streets during a disorder situation. Others want to release swarms of angry bees or rampaging bulls or to cover rioters in permanent die.

A petition on Parliament's new e-petitions site wants to see anyone involved in rioting 'loose' their benefits. Little thought appears to have been given to how such people will then be able to live without resorting to more crime.

The current 'solution' doing the rounds is to switch off Twitter and other social networking sites. In a typical 'blame something you don't understand' announcement, David Cameron (who described Twitter users as twats) said this lunchtime that he is looking into the idea. In the same vein, presumably he will be looking to ban telephones.

Conveniently forgetting for the moment that the West criticised Egypt, China and other authoritarian regimes for switching off social media, Cameron also ignores the help that Twitter has been to Police forces in trying to promote public safety messages and to source information about the rioters themselves. Rather than switching off Twitter, Cameron should be ensuring that the Police make best use of it to catch and prosecute those taking part in or formenting criminal behaviour.

Plenty of people have blamed cuts - either to public services or to the Police (although the Police cuts haven't actually happened yet. I won't for a second presume to think I have the answer to why the riots happened or spread so far or so fast. But I do think that we should reassess whether cutting police forces so deep is a good idea - could they project the level of force that seems to have quietened things down again after the cuts?

But what I do know is that whilst those found guilty deserve the full force of the law and appropriate but heavy punishment. But turning Britain into a more illiberal state, restricting human rights or seeking to blame 'them' for 'coming over here and behaving badly' plays straight into the hands of the BNP.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Launceston Foodbank gets unanimous backing

Last night a very good turnout at the inaugural meeting voted unanimously to set up a Launceston Foodbank. Foodbanks are projects run by local volunteers, often churches, to provide emergency food supplies to people in particular hardship.

The meeting was organised at Central Methodist by Keith Roberts and heard from Jeremy Ravn of the Trussell Trust which co-ordinates more than 90 foodbanks across the UK. There were 58 people at the meeting - which I thought was incredibly good for a sunny Monday in August.

The idea behind a foodbank is that donations of tinned and dry foods are collected and parceled up into enough to feed either a single person, a couple or a family for three days. People in need are then referred by agencies like social services, doctors or churches and they are given the food.

The need for foodbank parcels can be one of a wide range of causes. It might be that your car has broken down, a paycheck hasn't arrived or you have not yet received a benefit payment. Whatever the cause, either you have no money for food or something else has swallowed up the money you would otherwise spend on food. The saying used last night was that you are only a bill away from needing a foodbank.

With the current economic situation the need is all the greater. Whilst the foodbanks operating in Bodmin, Wadebridge, Liskeard, Bude and Holsworthy have helped people in Launceston, our area is out of their 'patch' and so there is a need for a new organisation here.

I'm delighted that the meeting was so positive about setting up a group here and that there are so many people willing to help set it up. Congratulations to Keith and everyone who get the meeting together and best wishes to everyone as the organisation moves forward. I'll be looking to help by giving a donation from my councillors' community chest fund - as well as donating food from my weekly shop.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Two new residents parking schemes?

I'm working with residents in two areas of Launceston who want to see residents only parking schemes in their area.

People living on Western Terrace, part of Western Road, have parking in front of their homes, but it is limited to a maximum of a one hour stay and is mainly used by customers of the accountants and estate agents and by visitors to the centre of town (although you have to run there and back!) Residents of this area want to be able to park near their own home.

The other application is for a part of Kensey Hill near Hillpark Cottages. Parking in this area is unrestricted and is mainly taken during the day by people working in town who have been forced out of the car parks because of the huge increase in season ticket prices. Local residents coming home from work often find they have to park up to half a mile away - which is pretty bad if they are carrying shopping or have limited mobility.

In each case, if a residents only scheme is introduced, local people will be able to buy up to two permits per household as well as visitor tickets. Blue badge holders will also be able to park in the residents zone but other parking will be banned.

Schemes such as these are time consuming and costly to introduce, but they are sometimes the only way of helping residents to park within a reasonable distance of their homes. The two mentioned above will be considered by Cornwall Council officers before going out to a formal public consultation.

Latest Focus

This is the latest Focus newsletter which is being delivered to houses in Launceston Central. Rain permitting, delivery should be finished by the end of the week.

Click on the image to view more

Awards Season

It's blog awards season again with the Total Politics awards open for nomination.

Last year, I was very pleased to be ranked pretty highly in the local councillor category, so I've got a lot to live up to. So if you would be so kind as to take five minutes and cast your vote...

(The small print - you have to vote for at least five blogs in order of preference. Voting closes at midnight on August 19th)

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011

Pressing for urgent changes to Launceston parking

Last week my colleague Sasha Gillard-Loft and I met with the chair of the Council's parking panel as well as parking officers to discuss a whole range of parking issues. The most significant outcome was that we have asked them to urgently reconsider the 3 hour limit on parking in the town centre.

Regrettably, the one thing we couldn't discuss is the amount being demanded by the Council in car park income overall. I've long argued that the authority's view of parking as a cash cow is completely wrong and local shops and businesses are really suffering as a result.

Over the last three years, the pay and display element of Cornwall Council owned car parks in Launceston have taken in approximately £183,000, £182,000 and £181,000. Yet in the current year they expect to make £199,000. I have no idea how they expect this to work and think they are actually likely to make less, not more.

Within the areas we were allowed to discuss we had a good discussion. We raised the key issue of the decision to make the three town centre car parks short stay only, rather than allowing all day parking at a premium as had been the case before. This particular change has brought a huge number of complaints and I have written to Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks on the issue three times (as well as arguing the case before the change was made) and had no reply. Today officers confirmed that this was simply because of a desire to have a 'one size fits all' approach to short and long stay parking across Cornwall with no recognition of local needs.

Sasha and I made the case for an urgent change back to the old system - during the current year if possible. Officers have agreed to go away and look at the chances of a change with the likely option being to allow an all day option at the Walkhouse car park on Tower Street.

We also discussed the very high charge for up to 2 hours parking. Being able to park for an hour for 50p is great, but the jump to £1.70 to stay up to two hours is felt to put many people off from staying longer in our town. I'm glad that officers have taken this on board and will hopefully produce a more reasonable charge proposal for next year.

Finally, we discussed the lack of signage, particularly directing traffic to the Cattle Market long stay car park.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Camelford Leisure Centre and Bude Sea Pool to be cast off? - UPDATED

Cornwall Council is setting up a new leisure trust to take over council run leisure facilities. The benefits of such a change would be to avoid having to pay VAT or business rates. The Council would still retain almost the same amount of control over the level of services and all existing facilities would remain open.

So far, so good.

But what about the two facilities that had been previously cast adrift by the Council for budgetary reasons - Camelford Leisure Centre and Bude Sea Pool? Back when the decision to go ahead with a trust was taken, I secured an agreement that these two facilities would be included in the new trust, at least at the outset.

In both Bude and Camelford, local groups have been set up to try to take over and save the facilities. I very much hope that both will succeed and are able to take over their centre to secure it for the long term. But in order to give them the time and space to do so, we need to secure the short-term future and this means the trust taking over the management. But now rumours are circulating that this might not happen. I've written to the Council asking for urgent clarification.

UPDATE - I'm very glad to have received reassurances from the Council's Director of Communities that the rumours are not true and that Bude Sea Pool and Camelford Leisure Centre will be transferred to the new trust. That's not to say that there are no question marks over their future, but at least any short-term concerns appear to have been sorted.

Cornwall Council seeks translator into plain English

This morning I got the following Press Release from Cornwall Council:
Cornwall Council is chosen as one of most creative councils in the country

A groundbreaking proposal which will see public sector organisations in Cornwall working with communities to find new ways of tackling local problems has been shortlisted for the national Creative Councils programme.

The aim of the programme, which is being run by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and the Local Government Group, is to support councils to develop new approaches to meet the challenges facing communities and local services over the next few years.

The Council’s application, which has been developed in partnership with the Cornwall School of Social Entrepreneurs, Volunteer Cornwall and CISCO IBSG, is one of just 17 out of 137 bids submitted by councils across the country shortlisted to go forward to the next stage of the process. The application builds on the community centred work of Dott Cornwall.

“As Eric Pickles recognised earlier this year we are a “can do” council which has never been afraid to do things differently” said Council Leader Alec Robertson.

“Our proposal involves working with communities to improve their local areas by making change happen. Rather than imposing solutions, we want to support local people to work with us to identify and then solve the problems they face. We will then work with them to develop the best ideas and create business plans around their proposed solutions”.

Does anyone have a clue what it actually means? It appears to say that Cornwall Council will try to solve local problems. If so, that's hardly innovative. Surely providing good quality local services and responding to local concerns is what councils are all about?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Summer brings out the worst in a few people

It's summer and lots more people are outside enjoying the best that our town has to offer. However there appears to be a small minority of people who think they can cause damage and get away with it.

Two recent examples are obscene graffiti on children's play equipment in Priory Park and throwing the bin from the green under Newport Bridge into the river (as you can see in the photo).

In both cases, Launceston Town Council have been quick to act and they deserve our thanks, but abuse of local facilities has to be paid for and this means more money on the council tax or manoey taken away from other front line services.

Brad-watch and the benefits of film production in Cornwall

Cornwall is officially on 'Brad-watch' at the moment as the Hollywood star is apparently due in Falmouth to film part of his new film World War Z.

He will be accompanied by his wife Angelina Jolie and their children (again according to press reports) and Falmouth Harbour Commissioners have had to set up a no-go zone around the ship being used for the filming.

All this is great for Cornwall's image and economy but raises the issue of whether there should be a dedicated team responsible for managing film production in Cornwall and encouraging more producers to use us for their locations.

I used to work in Southwark which had its own film unit. Their major role was to manage the constant stream of requests for filming related street closures, but they also promoted the borough as a venue and helped to ensure that the production went as smoothly as possible. Knowing what was going on also helped with publicity.

At the moment we don't even know if Mr Pitt is actually going to be setting foot in Cornwall. And even if he is, there is no guarantee that he or his producers would agree to any promotional activity. For a star as big as he is, the mere rumour is enough. But for the many productions which take place in Cornwall every year that do not star Hollywood royalty, a bit more concerted promotion could work to the benefit of the film and for Cornwall as a destination.

Vince de-criminalises ipods

Vince Cable might not have an ipod himself, but he's doing more for digital music fans than any minister from Labour or the Conservatives before him.

Vince has admitted to Sky News that
“I’m still in the analogue era…”

but today he is making a speech in which he is announcing that a person who rips a CD or DVD that they own for their own personal use will no longer be breaking the law.

Until now, bizarrely, a person who buys a CD and then copies the songs onto their computer and then onto their ipod, phone or other digital music device was breaking the law, even though they were only doing so in order to personally listen to the music that they themselves had bought.

"We need to bring copyright into line with people's expectations and update it for the modern digital world. This will free up innovative British businesses to develop new consumer technology and help boost economic growth," said Vince.
Typically, right wing blogger Guido Fawkes (someone you might think would applaud the move) chooses simply to quote Vince out of context.

*Yep, the headline is a tad OTT.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Launceston town bus route under threat?

Cornwall Council may have agreed last week to withdraw the immediate threat to bus subsidies and to start talks with the bus companies, but there are still substantial risks to the future of local services. Launceston residents are still expressing a lot of concern about the future of the town bus service as well as other public transport links in North Cornwall.

The issue is a complex one because the level of reimbursement to bus companies for carrying free pass holders is effectively also a subsidy. Those routes where there are very large numbers of free pass travelers are particularly sensitive to any change in the reimbursement rate.

One such route is the Launceston Town Bus service which links the different parts of our town. The town bus is particularly important because of the topography of the town. The hills mean that, without a bus service, people living in Lanstephan or Ridgegrove and who do not have access to a car might find it almost impossible to get into the town to go shopping or even to go to Tesco if they have mobility difficulties.

I understand that the town bus service carries a particularly large number of free pass holders and is very vulnerable to any change in the reimbursement rate. At present, that rate is 73.5%. Cornwall Council's opening offer was a reduction to 43.5%. My understanding is that any rate below about 65% would make the town bus non-viable without another form of direct subsidy.

Last week I met with residents of Kensey Valley Meadow who were keen for the town bus route to be extended to include them. At the moment, regrettably, it looks as though Cornwall Council is more likely to close down the route than to see it extended.