Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Buses in North Cornwall first for the chop

It looks like bus services in the most rural areas including the whole of North Cornwall are likely to be first for the chop in Cornwall Council's slashing of the network.

This morning the Environment and Economy scrutiny committee met to look at the model the council is proposing to use to 'score' the different bus services as part of the re-tendering exercise. Those services which score lowest are set to be the first axed.

I had a large number of problems with the different criteria which seemed to be far too much of a blunt instrument. The whole exercise seems to be designed to be quick and dirty - a fact acknowledged by the lead officer who suggested that taking as much as 46 hours to assess all routes in Cornwall on the communities they passed through would be too much. I argued that, when it comes to something as important as our bus network, we should take the time necessary and have a decent scoring system.

Officers admitted that buses which passed close to poorer communities but not through them would not get the marks in that category. Communities of under 500 people would get no marks and there were no fewer than three categories (out of twelve) which essentially all looked at the amount of subsidy per passenger. This is an important factor, but it shouldn't be worth a quarter of the whole mark.

It also appears that no marks are being given to what happens when a bus crosses the border into Devon. So a bus linking with Treliske Hospital gets marks. A bus linking with Derriford or Devon and Exeter does not despite the fact that these are the local hospitals for some Cornish residents.

The biggest shock came when the officers showed how 13 test routes scored when they ran the figures. Two Launceston routes were scored - the 236 service to Liskeard and the 225 service to Altarnun - as well as the Bodmin town service which is very similar to Launceston's 223 town service. The two Launceston services scored in the bottom three and the Bodmin town service scored tenth. It seems highly likely that the scoring system is heavily biased towards services between big towns in Mid and West Cornwall and biased against rural areas and, in particular, North Cornwall.

I'm therefore very worried that this whole exercise will lead to the axing of many routes in North Cornwall and that very poor residents will be left with no way of getting to work, to see family or friends or even to hospital.

I voted in favour of calling on the Cabinet to give more money to the supported bus services - a motion that was overwhelmingly passed - and against the proposed scoring system. Unfortunately the majority formed by Conservative and Independent councillors voted it through subject to the chief officer considering suggestions made by the committee.

UPDATE - The local paper coverage of the story is here.

Labour's prescription for Cornwall - Close small schools and praise the Tories

A council budget meeting is one of the biggest political events of the year. Whilst at other times you can expect to see councillors from different political parties working together, during the budget debate you will tend to see two (or more) very different programmes emerging as different parties set out their vision for our area.

Yesterday we saw a clear difference between those who believe in freezing council tax and those who want to put it up. We also saw a different split between those who believe in the continuing mismanagement of frontline services and those who believe that we should be saving buses and public toilets and protecting town centre businesses from high parking charges.

But what of the Labour point of view. There is a single Labour councillor on Cornwall Council and, despite protestations of making a comeback, they have performed dismally in the two recent council by-elections. Yesterday's performance might explain why.

Jude Robinson nailed her tax and spend colours firmly to the mast with a vote both in favour of a 3% tax rise and against the Lib Dem freeze proposal. But it was in her speech on the main budget debate that she most surprised me.

Her opening line was to praise the current (Tory-led) administration for their work over the past year. Yep - the administration which has presided over a budget crisis, is endangering half the bus network and is threatening to close almost half the public toilets gets the thumbs up from Labour. The reason for the thumbs up? Because of the way they have handled the budget cuts necessitated by the financial crisis left behind by the last Labour government.

She did issue some criticisms. She said she disagreed with the administration on waste and on adult care but saved her biggest attack for the failure to close small village schools. It appears that the headline Labour policy for Cornwall is to attack rural communities and to force poorer families into towns and cities.

So it is clear. Labour's message for Cornwall is in favour of higher taxes, backing the Tory handling of the council and campaigning to destroy village life by closing smaller schools.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Other news from full council

Even though it was the main event, the budget was not the only key item at today's six hour council meeting.

  • The proposal to back a public holiday on St Piran's Day - first put forward by my Lib Dem colleagues Ann Kerridge and Jeremy Rowe back in March - was finally approved. There were a large number of Conservatives (including the Leader) who backed an amendment for yet another round of consultation (presumably using expensive consultants). However the final result was pretty clear cut.
  • Cornwall Council will be continuing to campaign against the proposal for a Devonwall parliamentary constituency and will also be making a formal submission to the boundary commission asking them to use the new ward boundaries rather than the ones which have now been consigned to the dustbin. We don't believe that it helps constituents if people in a single ward are in two different constituencies. We also backed the proposal to retain the 'South East Cornwall' name for a constituency rather than the proposed 'Liskeard'.
  • At least some of the services offered by the Performing Arts Library will be kept in St Austell after a storm of protest greeted the initial proposal to move the entire thing to Threemilestone.
  • It appears that Cornwall Council will be expecting most of the work involved in helping people who do not live on the Olympic Torch route to see the procession to be done by the host towns and villages. I asked whether the Council had been in touch with the bus and train operators to ask them about helping out, but the answer appeared (it was pretty waffly) to be no. There do appear to be plans for other events across Cornwall, but the focal point - the torch itself - is likely to remain out of reach for many families. I'll get the full text of the response in the next couple of days and try to work out the meaning.

A council tax freeze for Cornwall

Cornwall Council today agreed a Lib Dem proposal for a council tax freeze next year which will save a Band D household £31.11.

We faced the choice of asking residents to pay more to maintain the current level of services or accepting the government's offer of a grant to freeze council tax next year. For us this was no choice. We cannot justify asking residents to pay a penny more than we have to.

From saying over the past month that they were not prepared to discuss council tax levels until next year, the Conservative leadership have performed a hurried u-turn and were today prepared to accept the Liberal Democrat proposal of a council tax freeze. What is clear, however, is that the administration is split down the middle on the key issue of council tax with three of the four independent members voting for a 3% rise.

Far from their rhetoric of going early and being bold, the Conservative administration has been reduced to following the Liberal Democrats in doing what is right for local residents. It is clear that the Cabinet is split down the middle on the key issue of council tax and they are failing to deliver what is best for the people of Cornwall.

The Liberal Democrat council tax freeze will save a Band D council tax payer £31.11 next year. That may not be a huge amount, but it will be a welcome contribution to the household kitty of many Cornish families.

Whilst the vote today was pretty clear cut, the final council tax decision cannot legally be taken until February when the full final budget is agreed.

However, the Conservative led administration also accepted three other Liberal Democrat amendments. The first will establish a pot of money to help fund community bus services. The second will begin the programme of much needed investment in our harbours. The final amendment is one which we proposed last year and which was defeated. I'm curious (but delighted) that they have changed their minds now and agreed to reinforce the power of scrutiny committees with our amendment that changes to the budget once agreed cannot go ahead without being agreed first by scrutiny.

Despite the administration accepting these islands of certainty, the Lib Dems had made it clear from the start that we could not vote for the budget. This was mainly because we still do not know all the necessary details. Last year we said the same and it proved to be true with mid year crises in parking, public toilets and buses. The Leader was good enough to hold his hands up to two of these. We still don't feel that all the details have been worked out and, until we are sure that there will be no nasty surprises in the coming year, we won't be backing the budget even though it contains some undoubtedly good elements.

In the end though, the administration got their budget through although they had quite a few abstentions and votes against from within their own ranks.

UPDATE - Jeremy Rowe's take on the budget is here.

Monday, 28 November 2011

... or maybe not

Last week I posted this about a question which had been submitted to the full council meeting tomorrow. Mr Davidson of St Austell was wanting to ask:

"Can I ask a question relating to item 12 - Parliamentary Constituencies Review?"

Last week I suggested that the answer was yes. It now appears that the question has been withdrawn from the order paper and so it is clearly no.

Water Bills to be cut by £50

The Western Morning News this morning reports that George Osborne is proposing a £50 cut in water bills across the South West Water area.

That's hugely good news for an area which has been hit by over-pricing since the Conservatives controversially privatised the water companies. The most argued about element was the need to clean and keep clean more than 30% of the UK's coastline despite the area having just 3% of the population.

Together with what was perceived to be over-charging by the company itself, this lead to water bills which are twice as expensive as London and over £1000 per year in many cases. The average cost in Cornwall is £517 which is roughly 20% more than the UK average.

Liberal Democrats have been campaigning on this issue for many years now and this cut is a good step in the right direction. After all, in 13 years Labour did nothing on the issue. But whilst SWW bills are still the highest in the country - and by such a margin, we'll keep up the pressure on the Government to take further action.

School closures on Wednesday

On Wednesday there is a large scale public sector strike planned over the issue of pensions. As a result, at least 88 schools across Cornwall will be totally or partially closed.

In the Launceston area, these are:

Egloskerry School - open to Class 3 only
Launceston College
Launceston CP School
St Catherine's C of E school
St Stephens CP School, Launceston - only open to ARB
Stoke Climsland School
Tregadillet CP School

Sir James Smiths in Camelford and Budehaven School are also among those closed.

This list may change over time. For the latest information, go to the Cornwall Council site.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Clegg launches £1 bn programme to get young people earning or learning

This email has just landed in my inbox:

Dear Alex,

Today I have launched the Youth Contract, a £1bn programme to get every unemployed young person earning or learning again before long-term damage is done.

We cannot afford to lose the skills and talent of our young people – right when we need them most. We need the next generation to help us build a new economy.

Across the UK, youth unemployment has risen to 21.9% and in Cornwall, there are currently 2985 young people claiming Job Seekers Allowance. We owe it to them to make sure that even in tough economic times, we will do everything we can to find them a job, training or education.

That is why today I have committed the Coalition to investing £1bn to tackle youth unemployment. You can read more about the contract here, but it includes:
  • A work experience place for every unemployed 18 to 24 year old who wants one
  • 410,000 new work places over the next three years
  • 20,000 more incentive payments to encourage employers to take on young apprentices
  • 250,000 new work experience placements
  • And because we know businesses are struggling to take young people on, we will pay half their basic wage for six months
Young people have been hit particularly hard in the recession, but even in the boom years, Labour failed to tackle the issue. During Labour’s 13 years, youth unemployment rose by 40%. With Liberal Democrats in Government, we won’t allow the children brought up in the boom to bear the brunt of the bust. The next generation must not pay the price for my generation’s mistakes. So the Coalition Government won’t sit on our hands and let a generation fall behind.

Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister

Cabinet Member proposes charging taxpayers £7.2 million more next year with 3% amendment

Despite the insistence from Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson that the decision over council tax levels should wait until February, it seems that two distinct options will be debated by councillors next Tuesday.

As I've blogged before, the Lib Dems are proposing that Cornwall accepts the Government's offer of a grant equivalent to a 2.5% rise in council tax in return for freezing the amount we charge residents.

Today it has been announced that Indie cabinet member Julian German is proposing an amendment to raise council tax by 3%.

Such a move would raise an extra £1.2 million to provide more funds for the devolution team transferring assets from Cornwall Council to town and parish councils and money to improve assets that are being devolved; money to protect service delivery levels for footpaths and grass cutting; money for conservation management within the Historic Environment budget and money to deliver the FEAST project within the culture budget.

None of these is a bad scheme. But, in my view, paying for them through extra council tax is a bad idea. These projects could still be afforded through using some of the £7 million extra that Cornwall Council put into their war chest over the past year or by reducing the massively high contingency levels that Cornwall keeps to pay for pet projects and their financial failings.

It's not just the extra £1.2 million for these projects that Julian is demanding from taxpayers. By proposing a rise, he is forcing the Council to spurn the £6 million government grant and condemning householders to pay that money too when they don't have to.

It's also worth noting the language that Julian is using in his amendment. He talks of 'protecting service delivery levels for grass cutting and footpath maintenance'. So it seems that Cllr Robertson wasn't actually telling the truth when he said that his proposed budget contains no new cuts. If he was right then Julian wouldn't need more money to protect current service levels.

Wendron: Lib Dems jump from fifth to second and congrats to MK

In case you haven't seen it elsewhere, this is the result of the Wendron by-election:

Loveday Jenkin (MK) - 427 - 36.4% (+16.4%)
John Martin (LD) - 262 - 22.3% (+12.3%)
Conservative 227 - 19.4% (+3.4%)
Independent 177 - 15.1% (-16.9%)
Labour 80 - 6.8% (+3.8%)

A great result for the Lib Dems jumping from fifth in 2009 to second this time. This was down to a brilliant candidate in John Martin and a fantastic campaign.

Obviously congratulations are due to Loveday Jenkin who came second last time and gained it this time.

The Lib Dems leapfrogged the Tories (third in 2009). This was the fourth by-election in this council. So far they have lost two seats and been failed to make any impression in two others that they thought they would win.

And where were Labour? Remember all their boasts about being a serious force in Cornwall. Perhaps you could excuse Bude - not exactly their best area. But half of Wendron falls within Camborne, Redruth and Hayle - their supposed heartland.

Thanks to everyone who helped in Wendron. We can be proud of this result.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Council to delay 22 road safety schemes to plug parking budget hole - details

Cornwall Council has backed down on its proposal to use the money given by the government to repair roads damaged by harsh weather to plug the hole in its parking budget. That's great news, but there will still be 22 road safety schemes which are being delayed.

Last year, the Liberal Democrats warned that Cornwall Council's parking budget didn't add up. Unfortunately the Conservative-led administration refused to listen to us. As we predicted, there is a shortfall of at least £2 million this year. In order to meet part of this, the proposal had been made to use £1m of the £4.12 million that the government gave to repair ice and snow affected roads to plug the hole.

The Lib Dems warned that delaying road repair schemes that are designed to ensure safe driving is a very dangerous thing to do. To an extent, the council have listened to us this time. They have decided to delay other schemes and not those using the Government grant. Whilst this is welcome, it's still a risky thing to delay any road safety scheme.

The schemes affected are:

The work planned in each area is a variety of re-surfacing, patching, jet cleaning and the installation of anti-skid surfacing.