Sunday, 30 October 2011

Two bits of good news for Cornwall

There have been two bits of good news for Council taxpayers in Cornwall over the weekend.

The first is that Kent County Council has won its court battle to get back money it invested in Icelandic banks. Many local authorities were caught out by their failure (including Cornwall County Council and Restormel Borough Council). As the successor authority, Cornwall Council has had to set aside money in case it was unable to get the Icelandic money back. Kent's win makes it much more likely that we will get our money back too and this should free up the 'set aside' cash to use for front line services.

The second bit of good news is the report of the decision by the government to implement the Liberal Democrat policy of ending the council tax discount for second home owners. This could provide a welcome boost to Cornwall's coffers to help save front line services currently destined for the axe from the Conservative led administration.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Cornwall signs up to 'resolutely European' future

I've been interested to read all the comments made by members of Cornwall Council's Conservative group regarding the vote in the House of Commons last Monday on an EU referendum. Two of the commenters were Cabinet Member Steve Double and Deputy Conservative Group Leader Scott Mann.

Of course local councillors have no power to force such a referendum. What Cornwall Council does have, of course, is the power to argue a case in the organisations it is a member of. One such is the Conference of Peripheral and Maritime Regions. The annual conference of this body was attended in Denmark by Cornwall Cabinet Member Carolyn Rule. Far from arguing the case for repatriation of powers, the final communique - to which presumably Carolyn subscribed - talks of a 'resolutely European' future. It says:
"the Conference is concerned about the persistent lack of trust and solidarity between the States of the European Union. A number of encouraging steps forward have of course been made over the past few months: creation of the European financial stabilisation mechanism and its durable transformation into a European Financial Stabilisation Facility are examples to the credit of the Eurozone leaders. This is welcomed by the CPMR"
and then
"As supporters of a resolutely European future which is the only way to ensure a strong role in the global interplay of the 21st century, the peripheral maritime Regions have made European solidarity a focus of their reflections."
The communique also mentions other subjects, including how different authorities have dealt with the worldwide financial crisis. On that subject, the CPMR states:
"the CPMR wishes to draw attention to the detrimental short- and long-term effects of the spiral of austerity into which some States have currently launched themselves"
That would be some states and Cornwall. And
"On a social level, the member Regions are unhappy with the swingeing cuts made in social policies that as a direct result are crippling and impoverishing whole groups of populations."
Such as homeless people and those in danger of becoming homeless who have seen a 40% cut in the supporting people fund in Cornwall, perhaps?

David Parsons wins for Bude and Stratton

What a fantastic result for the Lib Dems in the Bude North and Stratton by-election. David Parsons has been elected with just over 61% of the vote to replace Nathan Bale who was a great councillor for the area.

David stood on a platform of opposing the service cuts that the Tory administration is imposing across Cornwall - from buses to public toilets, important local services are being cut by the Conservatives and it is clear that the voters of Bude and Stratton oppose this policy.

At the 2009 election, Nathan stood against just one opponent. Today, David faced a Labour candidate and Independent as well as the Tory. Whilst the Lib Dem percentage fell back slightly, so did the Conservatives and neither Labour nor Independent made a significant impact.

David was a great candidate and will be a very strong voice for the Bude and Stratton area alongside fellow Lib Dems Nigel Pearce and Paula Dolphin. Many thanks to everyone who helped us over the last four weeks.

The full result:

David Parsons (Lib Dem) 958 - 61.17%
Conservative 395 - 25.22%
Labour 120 - 7.66%
Independent 93 - 5.94%

There were four spoilt ballots. Turnout was 29.52%

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Why Cornwall Council is cutting services in October.

Sorry - this one's a bit of a process story, but it helps to explain just why so many council services are being cut in Cornwall in early autumn.

The Council has been making great play of the fact that it 'went early' with its budget last year and chose to cut deep in the first year to protect budgets in later years. Council Leader Alec Robertson is filling the airwaves with claims that no other local authority is in the same position as we are.

Both the 'go early' and the 'pain now, relief later' strategies are legitimate options - even if they are not the ones you might choose. But the way that they have been handled by the administration in Cornwall leaves a lot to be desired.

The main problem is that, when the budget was voted on back in November, very few of the details were available. The headline figures were there, but not many of the implications. At the time, we made a big issue out of the lack of detail on some budget areas. We were even told that councillors had no right to know the fine details.

The fine details are what has got the council into a mess. Headline restructuring of the environment budget as turned out to mean the proposed closure of 114 public toilets across Cornwall - something that we were not told at the time.

Councillors were not told that there was a huge £2.5 million hole in the bus budget. It was felt to be low risk because we were writing to the Government asking for more money and a cheque was presumably assumed to be in the post by return.

What we did notice was that the budgeted income for car parking was hopelessly optimistic. And so it has proved. How is this gap being plugged? By taking money given by the government to pay for essential road repairs.

These are just a few examples. The proposal from Cllr Robertson is that we repeat the process again this year. I have no problem in theory with an early budget. But it must have been worked out properly this time and not be a repeat of last years rush job. We shall find out on Wednesday and Thursday of next week whether it is or not as backbench councillors get the chance to look at the fine detail.

For the record, the Liberal Democrat group voted against last year's budget.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Bude Tory candidate knows more than Council Leader

It appears that the Conservative candidate in the Bude and Stratton by-election knows more than Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson on the subject of the level of council tax next year.

The official papers passed by the Council's Conservative led cabinet are undecided on the subject. They point out the dilemma for the authority about whether to accept the money on offer from the Government. If Cornwall does take the £6 million then council tax levels would be frozen for another year. But it would also mean either a doubling of the rise the following year or another round of cuts.

There is no such doubt for Trevor Macey, who is flying the Tory flag in Bude and Stratton. His latest leaflet declares:

"No council tax rise again!"

So if the Conservatives have already decided that they will opt for a council tax freeze, why didn't they say so at the Cabinet meeting? And will they explain how they will cope with the consequent drop in revenue the following year?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Should Cornwall Council step into the breach to help our top athlete achieve an Olympic medal?

Cornwall Council is busy spending up to £150,000 of public money on co-ordinating the Olympic torch procession through Cornwall. At the same time, one of the top Cornish prospects for a medal at the games has lost her lottery funding.

I'm delighted that the torch will begin its progress at Lands End and have no doubt that it will bring a lot of good media coverage to Cornwall. But I question what good the Cornwall Council money will do. Nobody has yet managed to say what precisely this money will be spent on or how it will add value to a torch procession which is already being co-ordinated by the Olympic Games organising committee.

But we know that the one thing most likely to inspire young people in Cornwall to take up sport is seeing British athletes doing well and winning medals. It's even better if they are athletes from local towns and villages.

So here's a question to ponder. Out of the money earmarked for the Olympics, would Cornwall Council be better of stepping into the breach and using a small part of it to fund Jemma Simpson's bid for a medal?

UPDATE - The Cornish Guardian has covered this issue here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Public toilets - confusion and anger at cuts proposals

There's a big row going on at County Hall at the moment on the subject of public toilets. A report prepared for the Environment Scrutiny Committee is proposing the closure of up to 114 (out of 247) public conveniences across Cornwall. This story also has a Launceston connection as the town council is in discussions with County Hall about taking over a number of services including toilets.

The headline is this - Cornwall Council wants to save about £1.35 million from its budget for public toilets. The decision to make cuts was agreed by the Council back in November last year but the details of what services would be affected and by how much wasn't made clear. For this reason (and a few others) the Liberal Democrats voted unanimously against the budget but it was forced through by the Conservatives and Independents.

It is claimed that the closure of 114 toilets will save £1.1m per year - still more than £250,000 short of the target. The officers at today's committee are making a lot of the fact the public toilets are not a statutory service. However, as blogger Simon Reed has pointed out, neither is giving £50,000 to Plymouth for their World Cup bid, webcasting, the Stadium for Cornwall, the Leader's slush fund etc etc.

So the proposal is to close these toilets. If a town or parish council wants to take them on then they are free to do so, but they would have to pay all the costs themselves. It is also proposed that the remaining toilets (those currently safe from closure) could also be taken on by towns and parishes and there would be a grant available to pay for these running costs. This is where the council hopes to save the remaining £250,000 by paying the local councils less than it costs the unitary to provide the service.

The Launceston angle is this. On the closure list are the toilets in the Walkhouse car park. On the safe list are the toilets in Race Hill car park. But at the moment Launceston Town Council is negotiating to take over a range of services currently provided by Cornwall Council. I was told last night that this list includes both sets of public toilets. How can those negotiations proceed if someone else in Cornwall Council is proposing to close a service before it can be transferred. It seems that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Alec's local referendum plans fall apart

In an interview with the local papers last week, Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson plugged the idea of holding local referendums next May alongside the election of the new police commissioner. The aim, he said, would be to ask questions on issues of interest to people across Cornwall such as the level of council tax that second home owners should pay or whether the Council should take responsibility for the A30.

Unfortunately for Alec, he got a couple of things wrong. First, the elections for the police commissioners have been postponed until November.

And second, on Monday last week the Government ditched the idea of local referendums such as those Alec was planning.

Friday, 14 October 2011

When is a diary not a diary?

A while back I blogged about Cornwall Council regarding its cabinet members as 'volunteers' and suggested that someone who is given £28k per year should not be regarded as a volunteer.

Since then I have pressed the Council about the way it monitors the work of cabinet members and whether any note is taken about how much time they give to their role. This isn't so much an attempt to have a go at any particular cabinet member (indeed, there are some cabinet members who work extremely long hours and one who regularly gets to the office before 7am). It is more about the accountability of those who take on the role and make significant decisions in our name.

The answer I have got is this. Cabinet members are not regarded as employees and do not have terms and conditions and so do not have fixed allocations for holidays.

In addition (to quote from the reply I received):

"As Cabinet members perform functions of the Council it is clear that any record (such as their online diaries) which state they are unable to attend to that function is held by the Council for its business purposes and therefore covered by the Freedom of Information Act. However, there is no requirement for Cabinet members to explain why they are unavailable, as an employee would be required to."

"And whilst the Council’s calendar system does retain information relating to ‘holidays’ of Cabinet members, because the Council does not retain that information for its business purposes the information would not be covered by the Freedom of Information Act."

In my view, they have failed to provide a convincing argument for not coming up with the data. Most cabinet members do have online diaries and they do record holidays and other absences from the office in these. In addition, council officers, when responding to requests for meetings with the Cabinet members, do refer to these online diaries. Therefore it would appear that the diaries (and the recording of holidays) are used for business purposes.

So whilst this administration likes to view cabinet members as volunteers who can swan in and out of work as the whim takes them, at the same time they are arguing that there should be more of them paid by the taxpayer. I'd suggest that this argument would be a lot stronger if the current members of the cabinet worked to an expected set of hours.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Launceston schools getting £124,440 from Lib Dem pupil premium

The full details of the new money available to schools across the UK as part of the pupil premium have just been announced. The total amount will be £488 per pupil in receipt of free school meals.

In Launceston:

St Catherines has 21 free school meals pupils (10.2% of the total) and will get £10,248
St Stephens has 60 pupils receiving free school meals (30.5%) and will get £29,280
Windmill Hill has 36 pupils receiving free schools meals (17.4%) and will get £17,568
Launceston College has 138 pupils receiving free school meals (12.8%) and will get £67,344

That's a total of £124,440 across the four schools in town as well as many thousands for the other schools across our area.

It's worth remembering that the pupil premium is a Lib Dem initiative in government and that none of the schools would be getting this extra cash if we weren't there.

Incinerator blocked by High Court

The High Court has just issued its judgement on the legal challenge to the St Dennis incinerator. They have found for the objectors and against the Secretary of State's decision to allow the incinerator to be built.

This will come as a huge blow to Council Leader Alec Robertson who, controversially, wrote to the Secretary of State asking him to allow the incinerator to be built. This was despite the position of the former County Council being to refuse planning permission for that particular site.

The details of the judgement have yet to emerge, but the spin from County Hall has already started. The administration is currently comparing the costs of continuing with the current landfill system with a whole range of other council services, claiming that this will mean that vulnerable people won't be getting care and that potholes won't be filled.

Hmm. This is the administration that refused to give the £4 million to adult care last year that experts said was necessary and cut the supporting people budget by 40%. And this is the administration that is planning to divert money mean to repair roads to plug their gap in the parking budget. So they have little credibility with their latest claims.

I won't pretend to have been closely involved with the incinerator campaign. But objectors have said for some time that Cornwall Council should have had a plan B and now the failure to have one will become very apparent.

UPDATE - Surely, given the court's decision, it is right that Cornwall Council should stop all works on the incinerator until the matter is finally settled.

Council budget - not papering over the cracks

Yesterday Cornwall Council's cabinet 'debated' the first draft of their budget for the next financial year. I use inverted commas because it was hardly a debate. And the first evidence has emerged that new service cuts are included in the plans.

After a very brief initial welcome by the Leader and Finance cabinet members, the bulk of the presentation was made by an officer - the Director of Finance. I was a bit surprised by this. Nobody is pretending that officers haven't been involved in preparing the budget, but the decisions about where to prioritise spending should have been taken by the politicians - the cabinet members. Having the presentation made by the officer made it quite clear that this was not the case.

Inevitably we got a powerpoint slide show. But instead of dry as dust figures, the slides laid into other councils across the UK which, it was claimed, faced much worse positions. I'm not sure it is right to criticise the likes of Plymouth, Shropshire, Manchester and Westminster (three of which are Conservative run). The elected politicians there made their choices and will face the consequences. And it's not as if Cornwall Council got everything right. They still managed to 'forget' about a £2.5 million hole in their bus budget and set an unrealistic (by £2 million) budget for car park income.

The text for the disparaging slides said "Aren't you glad you are not here..." Well at least if we were in Plymouth we could ask for the £50,000 back that Alec Robertson gave to their failed World Cup bid.

I've given my initial thoughts on the budget here. We need a lot more details in order to understand some of the spending plans such as the new EMA system, how the additional £3m for adult care will save more than £4m the following year and so on.

But one piece of information that did slip out was that, in order to cover part of the shortfall in parking income, the Council will be raiding the special grant given to us by the Government for road repairs after the damage caused by the ice over the last two winters.

This would be fine if all of our roads had been repaired. But we have been told that this programme is currently running with a waiting list of a year. And if more money is slashed from it then that waiting time can only increase.

So, far from the 'no new cuts' mantra being spouted by the Leader, it appears that one new service cut has already revealed itself and, if they run true to form, many others will emerge as the budget process continues.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Cabinet confirms the abandonment of Camelford Leisure Centre

Despite the pleas of local people, Liberal Democrats and the local Conservative councillor, Cornwall Council's Cabinet this morning voted to abandon Camelford Leisure Centre.

As I noted before, the cross party scrutiny committee had voted by eight to two to recommend that the facility was kept within the leisure trust on a permanent basis. This would cost around £62,500 per year from April 1st, but we were confident that this could be found from elsewhere in the Council's budget.

The decision to pull out of Camelford sparked furious work by the staff there and local community. The staff managed to cut the net subsidy by over £100,000 per year. And they have boosted income so much that the small centre at Camelford is now getting three times as much in membership money as the much larger Wadebridge. The local town and parishes have also committed money and the new friends group will prove a valuable fund-raising and support tool.

The staff and local community have done huge amounts of work - work which has not been undertaken in other areas - but has been given a kick on the teeth as a result.

Today the Cabinet agreed to give a bit more time to the community to come up with an alternative way of managing the centre. This is, of course, a small step in the right direction. But it is most definitely a second best option compared with securing the long term future of the centre through the trust.

Camelford is the only leisure centre being cast adrift. The other facilities to lose funding are being given some huge dowries to secure their future. Jubilee Sea Pool, for example, is getting £2 million of capital works. And just last year, Carn Brea Leisure Centre (which is run by a completely independent trust) was given £500,000.

I see this as the victimisation of Camelford and it comes after the Council effectively pulled out of holding planning meetings in the town as well.

The debates about Cornwall Council's budget are now starting. The Liberal Democrats will be moving an amendment when the final document comes to full council to reinstate Camelford Leisure Centre as a permanent member of the leisure trust.

Good news of u-turn on voluntary electoral registration

Great news emerged last night that Nick Clegg has listened to the advice of the Electoral Commission and many others, including a large number of experts within his own party, on the subject of making electoral registration voluntary.

His proposal had been to withdraw the compulsion to register if you qualify. Combined with the move to individual registration, this would have saved a lot of money, but would also have seen the registration rate drop hugely. Already there are wide disparities with estimates in some inner city areas of rates of no more than 70%. We should be putting more money into this work, not less.

Individual registration is a good thing as it will help prevent fraud and it stops a person's ability to vote being dependent on someone else correctly filling in a form. But the move to cut compulsion was a massive step in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Another excellent blog on individual electoral registration

Last month I wrote in praise of Alastair Campbell (at least partially) and his concern over the moves to make electoral registration optional.

Another interesting foray into this debate comes from the ever-intelligent Mark Pack who has penned a piece on the various pros and cons of individual electoral registration and this one on making the process voluntary.

All this might seem pretty anoraky (and it is), but my required party political dig is about Labour's hypocrisy on (at least part of) the issue. They now claim that individual registration is wrong, despite the fact that it was they who legislated for it in the first place.

Friday, 7 October 2011

First thoughts on the new Council budget

Last night Cornwall Council published its first draft budget for next year. This morning I was up early to appear on Radio Cornwall debating the proposals with the Council Leader Alec Robertson.

My first thoughts are these. The Conservative led Council is desperately trying to make up for the mistakes they made last year. But in too many cases the damage has already been done and vulnerable local people have suffered severe hardship. They have also failed to go far enough in undoing the damage they have wrought to our services and infrastucture.

The decision to reverse last year's £4m cut in adult care is welcome, but every councillor will know of people in their area who have lost vital care already. And the Conservatives are admitting that next year's care budget will be cut by £4m once again. The admission that they were wrong to try to squeeze so much money out of drivers in their parking budget is also good news - but for some town centre shops and businesses this comes too late and they have already closed down.

Of course there is some good news in these proposals. The dualling of the A30 is something that the Liberal Democrats have been calling for over many years and we hope that the Council now makes it happen. Similarly, we opposed the Conservative cut to the Education Maintenance Allowance and we will work with the Council to introduce a new Cornish scheme. But we worry that it is only funded for two years. If it is to be more than a gimmick then it needs to be made permanent.

The claim by the council to have avoided any cuts to libraries or leisure is simply laughable. Whilst the Conservatives were forced to abort their initial decision to close all but nine library branches in Cornwall, they have still cut hundreds of opening hours. And try telling the people of Camelford or Bude that there have been no cuts to leisure services. The decision to abandon the leisure centre in Camelford and Bude Sea Pool is petty and vindictive and must be reversed.

What is most telling about this budget is what is missing. Despite promises only yesterday by the Cabinet Member for Housing that he was fighting tooth and nail for more money for the supporting people budget, there is nothing here. And there is no action to save the many bus routes under threat across Cornwall because last year's budget simply didn't add up.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Cornwall averaging ten months for changes to homes for people with disabilities

Cornwall Council has made a huge improvement in conducting assessments for people with disabilities getting home adaptations. We are now only taking three times as long as our target.

Disabled facilities grants are made to people who need significant adaptations to their homes because of physical disabilities - either the homeowners or a member of their family. Adaptations might be downstairs bathrooms, walk in showers or wider doorways.

There are two phases to the works. The first is an assessment by an Occupational Therapist. The target here is 45 days and, in the last quarter, Cornwall Council brought their performance down from 172 days to 140 days. That's a good improvement, but the Council are still taking three times as long as they should be.

The second phase is the work itself. Here the target is 180 days and the performance for the last quarter was 135 days - significantly better than target, but more usually the performance hovers around the target. It is true that one or two very lengthy works can skew the whole performance report, but people with profound needs are still having to wait an overly long time.

If a private homeowner wanted building works costing around £25,000 in their home, would they be impressed by a builder who took ten months to carry our the works. We were told that some people are dying before the adaptations to their home are completed.

The portfolio holder - Mark Kaczmarek - made the reasonable point that this was not an issue where the former district councils had a particularly good record and he pledged that this would be a priority for Cornwall Council. I hope that it takes a higher place in the administration's agenda than some of the whiz bang schemes that they are currently plotting.

In the end the committee agreed with my proposal to send the report back to the administration and ask them for more details including a plan for how they will meet their time targets.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Lance warned off Police Commissioner job

Tory Councillor Lance Kennedy (when he is not getting into rows with tortoises) has made it clear that he would like to be the Conservative candidate for Police Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall. But he took a bit of a kicking yesterday at the hands of Iraq war hero Colonel Tim Collins who is set to stand for the Conservatives in Kent and who was introduced to the conference stage by Home Secretary Theresa May.

Col. Collins is quoted as saying that he wanted to see ex-business and ex-military figures stand as PCC candidates, not "sunset councillors or retired policemen with axes to grind".

I'm sure he didn't mean Lance personally.

Look! A squirrel! The Conservative's new management technique

The Conservatives seem to have a new plan for covering up their mismanagement of Cornwall Council. It's a diversion technique. They are happy to showcase exciting new plans whilst pretending that old problems don't exist.

So the new plan of offering some form of bursaries to Cornish students could potentially be a great idea. It's a pity that the plans appear to have been leaked to the BBC rather than given to councillors, but what can you expect.

I say potentially good idea, because we have no idea of the details. Where will this money be coming from and who will it be going to? Will it help the most disadvantaged or be spread thinly across the whole population? And will it be concentrated in those areas which are the most disadvantaged in terms of access to education - North Cornwall and the Lizard?

But at the same time, the Council is hoping that people don't ask too many questions about all the cuts they have made including:

- cutting budgets for bus services so as to threaten vital routes across Cornwall;
- cutting £4 million from the adult care budget;
- cutting 40% from the supporting people budget used to help people who are homeless;
- cutting funding for Camelford Leisure Centre and Bude Sea Pool;
- cutting library hours across Cornwall;
- cutting funding for grit to keep our side roads moving in the winter;
- trying to cut funding for public conveniences.

I'm sure that, like us, most people in Cornwall will welcome help for local students if the details are right. But we mustn't let the Conservatives get away with pretending they haven't also made huge cuts to important front line services.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Tories set to reverse decision to save Camelford Leisure Centre

Last week, a key Cornwall Council committee voted to save Camelford Leisure Centre. But the Conservative led administration appear to have decided to ignore that decision and cast the facility adrift from April.

As I blogged, the Communities Scrutiny Committee voted 8-2 to include Camelford as a permanent part of the new leisure trust. We felt that it was wrong to discriminate against this part of Cornwall and close their leisure centre - especially as huge strides have been taken to cut costs and boost income there.

But the papers just published for next week's cabinet meeting show that, whilst lip service has been paid to the other scrutiny recommendations, the bit about Camelford Leisure Centre has just been reversed by the Tories.

The reason given is that there is no money in the budget for next year. This is utterly fallacious for a number of reasons:

- Although the council claimed to set a four year budget last year we didn't fix the numbers in stone. In fact the Cabinet is meeting again in the afternoon next Wednesday to consider.... next year's budget. So there would be no problem with putting the funding for Camelford back on the balance sheet;
- Staff at Camelford Leisure Centre have made huge strides to reduce costs and increase income. The net subsidy this year will be £62.5k as opposed to more than £170k last year.
- The current year's leisure budget is already shot to smithereens because of the delay in introducing the leisure trust. The reasons for the delay are the right ones, but they nonetheless make a mockery of the claim that the budget is 'fixed'.
- The move to the trust will save far more than the cost of Camelford.
- The Council seems to be able to find millions of pounds for capital works on leisure facilities in the West, but nothing to ensure that well used facilities in the East keep going.

I very much hope that the arguments that convinced the scrutiny committee last week will work on the Cabinet in seven days time. Among the eight who voted for Camelford were a number of Conservatives and Independents as well as all the Lib Dems. Let's hope that the Cabinet listens to their backbenchers.