Thursday, 31 March 2011

I was the Weakest Link

Just finished is the episode of the BBC One Show The Weakest Link featuring, er, me. And yes, I was the weakest of the weakest links and was voted out first, despite not actually getting a question wrong.

For anyone interested in being on a TV quiz show, I'd say go for it - and hopefully you'll have better luck than I did.

The process started with an audition held in Truro in the summer last year. After passing that, I was placed on a list of possible contestants and finally got the call in December to film in January. The filming all takes place in Glasgow and takes a full day. For most contestants that means flying up and staying overnight the night before.

The filming starts early and finishes late and they do two shows back to back in a typical day. There is endless hanging around whilst waiting for wardrobe and make-up and whilst the other show is filming.

The set-up filming ("Today's contestants have only just met each other...") is pretty endless and you sit in small groups making small talk as the camera pans around the room. I'm sure that if lip-readers watch this they will find out that all we are saying is "Haven't they finished yet".

Once on-set, (a very dark hangar-like building) there is more hanging around whilst they make sure everyone is roughly the same height and the microphones work. You are told precisely how to introduce yourself and how to flip over the voting board. And then you have to practice both until you get them right.

And suddenly Anne appears, dressed in black (none of the contestants are allowed to wear black). Almost immediately she starts asking the questions and your heart is racing. The first round questions are pretty simple and we all got them right. So it goes to voting. Had someone got one wrong, it would have been pretty easy to vote them out. But with a group of people who don't really know each other, there is no real way to make your decision and so I simply voted for one of the people I thought would be strongest. Unfortunately, more people voted for me than any other and I became the first voted off.

The interviews conducted by Anne as to why people had voted for me also took a long time because people were struggling to come up with reasons. People tried "because he is a Liberal Democrat" but were told that this couldn't be shown on TV. In the end they decided that my shirt was a valid excuse and they used that.

I never got an interview with Anne and she doesn't mingle with contestants afterwards. Pity.

Being the weakest link I had to do the 'walk of shame'. Actually you do this twice, once with a close up camera and once full length. It is amazing how self-conscious you become about your walking when you are doing it for TV.

And then the post-match interview, which lasted about 10 minutes. By this time you have seen the next two rounds being filmed and so you know who has been voted off already. One of the standard questions is to ask who you think will win. That's why all the contestants magically seem able to pick one of those who makes the final stages!

Yes it was enjoyable. Yes it as also very humiliating to get voted off first. But I can take some heart from being the only one on the show not to get anything wrong. It doesn't get me any cash though.

Tea by taxi

It's quite amazing just how many ways the Conservatives can find to waste taxpayers' money. Today's West Briton carries the story of 'Hot Water-gate'. A taxi was hired three times to transport tea and coffee between two council buildings in Truro.

Apparently this arose because the canteen facilities at Carrick House in the centre of Truro were out of action for a while and so the tea and coffee were sent by taxi from County Hall, just under a mile away.

It may not exactly be on the same scale as Labour Liverpool hiring taxis to run around the city delivering redundancy notices, but it's still an indication of just how far out of whack the Conservative priorities are.

The costs are, of course, nowhere near as bad as the £50,000 wasted on backing Plymouth Argyle's bid to host the World Cup.Or the £5,000 to send the Chief Exec to a conference in New York that appeared to have no benefit to the taxpayers of Cornwall. Or the £13 million being spent on renovating council offices when the job could be done for a lot less.

There are quite a few people who work in Carrick House and presumably they would all have been without tea and coffee making facilities for a while. Did no one think of chipping in and buying a cheap kettle?

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Shelter's campaign to evict rogue landlords

The housing charity Shelter has launched a new campaign to protect private tenants from rogue landlords. I've signed up in support and I think it's a campaign which deserves to succeed.

The principle aim is to get an accreditation scheme for private landlords to help protect tenants from living in squalor and the unscrupulous practices of some renters.

I've been a private tenant for a long time. I hasten to add that my current landlord is very good! But in the past I've suffered twice.

On the first occasion, a landlady held on to £400 of deposit money. On the second it was even more serious as the landlord moved to the USA owing myself and my fellow tenants around £3000.

Of course, both of these situations should now not be possible because of the scheme which requires deposits to be held in a special bond account. But I know that there are still people who lose money when the landlord fails to do this.

A health(y) debate

My colleague Nathan Bale has criticised the time taken at yesterday's full council meeting debating changes to the adult community health service in Cornwall.

I respectfully disagree with Nathan's view on this.

Health services are a huge concern to people across Cornwall and the changes that are proposed are substantial. If you take the narrow view - that the Council should only ever deal with issues which are entirely under its direct control - then our scope for influence would be very limited indeed. But, as has often been said, the aim of the Council is to be the strategic overseer of public services in Cornwall and thus we have a legitimate interest in issues which affect our work - as adult community health services do.

Whilst Parliament is debating the overall policy on changes, it is not going to focus on the effects in Cornwall and the NHS is hardly known as the most open and democratic debating chamber. If no one else is hosting such a debate, it can be incumbent on the Council to do so.

Ironically, one of the people who has often cited the need for Cornwall to think big is the Leader of the Council. But he was one of those who protested yesterday that health should be left to the NHS.

As it was, I felt that the health debate was a very interesting one and we heard from a wide variety of members. The end result was that members voted not to simply leave it to the NHS but to ask the scrutiny committee to look in detail at the proposed changes and how they would impact on local people.

We also voted against a proposal to have a 'referendum' on the proposed changes. I put the word referendum in inverted commas because it would be no such thing. Whilst we can try to influence the outcome, Cornwall Council does not make the final decision and, in any case, a ballot would not be the final say yet would cost up to £600,000 which could be better spent on other services.

Incidentally, Nathan also refers to the decision to debate double summer time and a St Piran's Day holiday. Neither of these is a decision that will ultimately be taken by the Council, but both have key relevance to Cornwall - our economy in the case of summertime and our culture in the case of the public holiday.

I believe it is right for the Council to debate key issues of policy - both to gauge opinion among members and to influence the decision makers. There has to be a limit of course. Military action in Libya - for example - is not something which directly affects public services in Cornwall and should be outside the scope for debate. But the NHS does and it should be.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Launceston CCTV Partnership

This evening I went to the AGM of the Launceston CCTV Partnership. This is the group that have installed four cameras covering the centre of town and monitor them to look out for crime and anti-social behaviour.

The partnership (as the name implies) is based around the co-operation between the Town Council and the local police and the monitoring is done at the Police Station by a small but dedicated team of volunteers.

Also key to the set-up are the local chamber of commerce. Although Cornwall Council did not fund this system, the councillors are also invited to meetings.

It may have only been going for a short period of time in a low crime town, but the partnership has already shown its use by helping to positively resolve more than a dozen incidents.

It's great to see this scheme working and massive credit goes to former Neighbourhood Beat Manager Matt Kingdon for being the driving force and the volunteers who give up their time - including New Year's Eve - to do the watching.

One planning meeting - ten solar farm applications

Cornwall Council's Strategic Planning Committee has 10 (count them, ten) applications for solar farms to consider at its meeting on April 8th.

Of course, these were all submitted before the Government's recent announcement about cutting the feed-in tariff and it is anybody's guess as to whether they will go ahead in the new climate even if they get the nod from the planning committee.

Web-casting will continue at Cornwall Council - and will grow!

As my colleague Jeremy Rowe blogs, there was almost unanimous support for the continuation of web-casting council meetings today and the facility will be in place until 2013 at least.

And the service will grow as meetings other the Full Council and Cabinet will enjoy the service up to a total of 120 hours per year. It is even possible that other organisations holding meetings in the 'wired' rooms at County Hall will be able to use the web-casting service if they are important and we have spare hours.

During my speech on the subject, I made the plea for the Council to take the next step and to move from broadcast to conversation mode. In other words, rather than simply making the web-cast available, we should be encouraging viewers to engage and to share their views on the subjects under discussion. The live coverage of big meetings by This is Cornwall shows that views and opinions can be published during the meeting - even if, at the moment, this is mainly from councillors themselves.

Of course, the webcast and interactivity associated with it is not the only way that people can comment on Cornwall Council business and we should remember that it is not an option for many people. But it is a huge step in the right direction and I'm glad the Council has voted to continue.

Council confirms vital road works in Launceston

Cornwall Council will be investing in vital road safety works in Launceston over the next two years. These will include a new crossing for pedestrians somewhere between St Thomas Road and Newport Square, safety works on Dutson Road and a new crossing on Western Road.

This is great news and reflects the hard work put in by local campaigners including the town council.

One of the key debates at today's full council meeting was on the new Local Transport Plan. At around 200 pages, it was certainly the lengthiest item on today's agenda.

A local transport plan is a requirement from the Government and the main document looks at the next 30 years or so. As such, it does tend to a bit of the 'motherhood and apple pie' tendency in that anything is possible in the next 30 years and it is possible to promise the earth knowing that it will be someone else who has to take the rap for failure to deliver.

But the document is nonetheless welcome. It is accompanied by an implementation plan which covers the next five years and is very cautious. It says that most improvements have to be concentrated in areas to the West and have to make best use of Convergence Funding. But there are still a few bits of good news for Launceston including those detailed above.

The safety works on 'Newport Road' (by which I assume and hope they mean the lower end of Dutson Road) are scheduled for the new financial year. So too is the new pedestrian crossing at Newport. This could simply mean including a pedestrian phase at the current Newport traffic lights or it could mean a completely new crossing close to it. The Western Road crossing is scheduled for a year later - in 2012/13 - and will complete the improvements necessary to allow pedestrians to get from Ridgegrove or St Stephens to the centre of town safely.

The new plan is not perfect, however. There is no mention of the Kensey Valley Relief Road or the by-pass needed to take traffic away from Newport altogether. There is also a pledge to invest £600,000 in electric vehicle infrastructure at a time when the technology doesn't allow an electric car to go from Launceston to Truro and back without an 8 hour recharge. I think this sort of thing is better delayed a few years so that the money can be spent on more immediate priorities.

But the overall plan is a good one and I'd like to thank Cabinet Member Cllr Graeme Hicks who came to Launceston to see the problems for himself and has acted on them.

Tory Cabinet member confirms No2AV are scaremongering

An interesting snippet from today's Cornwall Council full council meeting on the false arguments being put forward by the No2AV campaign.

My colleague Jeremy Rowe asked the Council to confirm the Electoral Commission's statement that the adoption of AV would not mean the need to use electronic voting machines. This was in response to the statements put out by the No campaign that costs of a Yes vote would be £250 million and include more than £120 million for e-voting machines.

Cllr Currie, the Conservative Cabinet Member for finance, ran through the history of voting pilots in the UK and confirmed that, when they ended in 2007, the decision was taken not to use e-voting again unless some very strict criteria were met and that the Commission had confirmed that this would not happen as a result of a Yes vote in the referendum.

This slaps down the scare-mongering tactics of the likes of Camborne and Redruth MP George Eustice who is a leading light of the No campaign and has frequently used the £250m figure.

Some of those who won't be too pleased to hear Cllr Currie's answer will be the three Tory councillors sporting No2AV badges in the chamber today - including Tory Leader Cllr Robertson.

Cornwall Council to adopt 'ethical' investment strategy on Bahrain?

Cornwall Council will look into adopting an 'ethical' investment strategy following concerns I have raised about investments in Bahrain - a country with a very dubious record on human rights and the rule of law.

My initial question was as to whether the council has any investments in the country. The answer - that we have no bank accounts in the country and the belief is that we do not invest in any companies which do business with the Government of Bahrain - was welcome, although I'm not 100% sure that this is correct. Questions have been raised about the investments made by the former Kerrier District Council and I believe that we should look more closely at the investments made by the Council's pensions fund.

I then pressed Cabinet Member Cllr Jim Currie on future plans to make sure that we keep our hands clean in our bank accounts and investments. He prevaricated a bit about the precise definition of 'human rights', but then committed Cornwall Council to look to adopting an ethical investment strategy so that investments in dodgy regimes such as Bahrain can be avoided.

Why bring this up in the first place?

Since the 'Arab Spring' started, there has been unrest in Bahrain - a long time ally of the West - and this has been shut down by the regime there with help from forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE - other key allies. This shutting down has taken a brutal form in many cases and it is clear that human rights are being abused there. Reports from ex-pats in the country tell of frequent gunfire and charges by Government forces and the centre of peaceful protest - Pearl Roundabout - has been cleared and knocked down.

It is quite right that Cornwall Council's investments strategy should be based on maximising our return, but it should also be underpinned by an ethical dimension and it looks as if we are taking a step in that direction.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Cornwall gets £4.7m for pothole repairs

Cornwall Council has been given £4.7 million by the Government as part of the new fund to help repair our roads. As anyone driving around Cornwall cannot help but notice, we have a huge number of potholes which cause damage to cars and potentially lead to serious accidents.

Here in Launceston, some of the worst affected roads are Tavistock Road, St Johns Road and Cross Lanes - all of which are on the Council's list of streets which need re-surfacing.

However, under the old budgets, it would have been as much as 12 months before anything other than emergency works could be done.

At full council tomorrow, my colleague Bob Austin has a question about potholes and we will be able to check that the new money will be spent quickly and on the worst affected roads.

(Some) Good news on EMA

The Government has today made two key announcements on the future of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the payment of up to £30 per week paid to young people aged 16-18 to help them stay in education.

The cutting of EMA was one of the decisions that I vehemently disagreed with. I have seen just how valuable it is in encouraging young people in my area to stay in education. With poor access to FE courses, Launceston has to lowest level of post 16 education in Cornwall and taking away funding from poorer students would have dented this further.

The first announcement is that all those currently receiving the grant will continue to do so. That means that students half way through a course won't find themselves without vital support.

The second announcement is that there will be a replacement payment of up to £1200 per year for the poorest students. This is more than was available before (the £30 per week was for 39 academic weeks and came in at £1170 in total) but will only go to around 12,000 of the very poorest students.

According to the Independent, the total fund will be £180 million per year and would have been a lot lower if Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg hadn't pushed for more. Set against this is the fact that the previous EMA scheme was £560 million per year and so there will be a lot fewer students who will receive anything. I understand the argument that many of the previous recipients didn't actually need the money, but I don't believe that this accounted for more than two thirds of the total.

This may not be the ideal situation, but it is clear that it would have been much worse if the Conservatives had their way and Labour themselves would have abolished the scheme in 2015.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Second Home Voting - more information needed

The Council's Electoral Review Panel has called for more information to help it decide what to do about second home owners registering to vote in elections in Cornwall.

The story so far:

Around 5% of homes in Cornwall are second homes and there are fears that people who own second homes are swaying the result of parliamentary and local elections by voting in Cornwall instead of (or as well as) their main residence.

Cornwall Council has written to the Government because the law is unclear and the Government have declined to clarify the rules and regulations. The Electoral commission has clear guidance that states that if a second home is for recreational purposes then no registration is permitted.

The debate today centred around my proposal to use the list of homes for which a council tax discount is claimed on the basis that they are second homes. I suggested that there should be a presumption that registration from such properties should be barred unless the person can show that they should be entitled to vote.

Unfortunately, there was a lack of information in the accompanying report which meant that councillors did not know the likely impact and where we would stand if there were a legal challenge and so it has been referred back for more work and will come to our next meeting - likely to be in June.

I'm relatively comfortable with this result because it is a big debate and we want to get it right, particularly as the Electoral Commission and other local authorities with large numbers of second homes are looking closely at what Cornwall is doing.

The case of the secret hog's pudding

Today's West Briton carries an update on the story of the gifts and hospitality offered to officers at Cornwall Council. The key issue is not so much the type of things that have been given (or refused) but the fact that the Council tried to keep them a secret in the first place.

I'm not surprised that our officers get given boxes of chocolate (or even hog's pudding) and it's hardly a shock that our Chief Executive is taken out to dinner by various companies. In fact, I think it is a very positive thing that this happens. After all, it's not as if there are Rolex watches or luxury cars that are changing hands and a council chief executive should be out there meeting companies and key organisations.

But the key is not the dinners or the chocolates. It is that these things should be open and above board so that everyone knows what they are. I am grateful to the Information Commissioner for ruling that Cornwall Council should have to make this information public (and to the West Briton for looking at the issue in the first place), but it shouldn't need a ruling to convince the Council that it is their interests as much as the public's that this sort of information should be freely available. I hope that Transparency Champion Cllr Bob Egerton (who is only just in his role and cannot be blamed for this at all) can encourage a different attitude from the Council in the future.

The Pandora Inn RIP

If you asked anyone in Cornwall to name a famous pub - apart from their local - they would probably name one of two, Jamaica Inn or the Pandora at Restronguet. Today came the shocking news that the Pandora has caught fire and may well be gone for good.

The fire only started this morning at around 11am and more than 35 fire crew are on the scene but the omens are not good. The building - dating from the 13th century - has a large thatched roof and access is via boat or a very narrow and winding track, making the work of our firefighters incredibly difficult.

I worked at the Pan for a summer during university in the days when the late Roger Hough was the landlord. It was a fantastic place to work with a great crew of staff and magical mix of locals (most of whom tended to arrive by boat) and visitors among the customers. I remember the entrepreneur Peter de Savary coming for lunch and mooring his (very large) boat out in the creek only to find that when he had finished eating he was left high and dry (it was a long lunch). He and his family had to wait around until the tide returned before they were able to get on.

The staff would often take turns to swim from the end of the pontoon to boats moored further and further out into the creek with a drink as a prize for the person who made it furthest within a given time.

I banged my head many, many times on the low slung beams and it seems that I won't have the chance to do so again, for which I am very sorry indeed. I do hope that our fire crews will be able to save as much as possible and hope that St Austell Brewery will consider rebuilding to be a viable option.

(with apologies to the two photographers whose photos I have nicked from local news sites. If you would like me to remove them, please get in touch)

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Recycling cardboard in Cornwall

A constituent in Launceston has been in touch because of problems he has had with recycling cardboard. No recycling bags are provided for cardboard and most residents put theirs out in supermarket carrier bags. But what if, like this resident, you have re-usable shopping bags?

The official advice from the Council is that you can use any of the council-provided recycling bags - such as those provided for paper or cans, but cardboard has to be kept separate. If, for any reason, your recycling is not taken by the collectors they should leave an orange sticker on the bag to tell you why not.

In this case, the failure to take the cardboard was a mistake for which the Council has apologised. But residents who want to recycle their cardboard can do so using carrier bags, recycling bags or just by tying it up and leaving it out - although please try to avoid this option in wet weather.

A budget with 'alarm clock Britain' at its heart

Today's budget puts the needs of 'alarm clock Britain' first and foremost according to an email I received from Nick Clegg this afternoon. I'm not sure that flogging the dead horse of that particular phrase will do much good, but the budget itself contained some really good news (and some more wishful stuff).

The great news - the move towards raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 is still happening. This week, the tax threshold - the level at which people start to pay income tax - will rise to £7,475 taking 880,000 people out of the tax system altogether. Today's announcement was of a further £630 rise next year to £8105. This will give lower earners (not just those on less than £8k) an extra £126 per year.

Other good news was the recognition of the damage that high fuel bills are doing to rural areas. We'll see the abolition of the fuel duty escalator, a cut of 1p per litre from tonight, the postponement of the planned 4p rise in April and moves towards a price stabiliser. Of course, this only partially redresses the 3p per litre rise that came in in January when VAT went up, but all Labour had to offer was an illegal plan to introduce a differential rate of VAT.

We also heard that there will be a water bill relief fund for people in the South West where we pay the highest bills - just 3% of the population pay for cleaning up 30% of the coast.

Both the tax threshold rise and the water relief fund are clear Lib Dem wins and the fuel duty issue is one on which local Lib Dems have campaigned strongly.

A cut in business tax, the imposition of air duty for private jets and help for first time homebuyers are also good news but they all depend on the finer details and I suspect the jet tax is merely a sop to the left rather than anything that will really make a difference.

There are, of course, many things he could have said but didn't. This could have been the time to reverse the planned cut in the feed in tariff for green energy or to devolve more powers to local government, but neither came.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Plans to scrap TUPE? (UPDATED - I was wrong)

As pointed out in the comments below. This post was just plain wrong (at least at the moment). The plans announced by Eric Pickles are to scrap simply the two-tier code whereby if a transferred service takes on new staff, they cannot be on worse terms and conditions than the transferred staff. There are (as yet) no plans to abolish TUPE and I was reading them both together.

Apologies for the mis-information.

For the record, the original post read:

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has apparently announced plans to scrap the system whereby local government staff transferred to private companies to continue doing their old job keep their original terms and conditions.

The system, known variously as the 'two-tier code' or TUPE, ensures that the private firms cannot force employees to accept much worse pay and conditions or lose their jobs.

Contrary to some press reports, the vast majority of local government staff are not overpaid fat cats. They earn above minimum wage, but they are not raking in the six figure sums which make the papers. The concern is that the abolition of TUPE, combined with the Conservatives' aim of getting councils to outsource more and more of their core work, will result in thousands of loyal staff losing out.

If this turns out to be the case then it will be a very bad day for local government. Staff such as call centre workers and bin men could see their pay cut to minimum wage levels or just above and could lose all but the legal minimum holiday and sick pay entitlements.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Proud of Launceston

What a great day for Launceston.

Early this afternoon, Launceston Colts beat St Ives by a last gasp penalty to win their league.

This evening, Mel and Roddy at Jericho's hosted a cracking evening of Launceston bands with Jumping on Rooftops, Isaac and Marcus and the fantastic Crowns.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Feed-in tariff decision is too far, too fast

The Government has today announced its review of the feed-in tariff for renewable energy - and it's bad news for Cornwall. The limit is to be cut 100-fold from 5Mw to 50Kw and this will rule out any large scale schemes in Cornwall - of which there are large numbers in the pipeline. Any scheme not already plugged in by August 1st would lose out - including all but perhaps one or two in Cornwall.

The review seems to have been sparked by what is perceived to be too many developers trying to take advantage of the generous feed-in tariff levels on offer - currently around 41p per unit. This is the money that a renewable energy producer gets for electricity that it supplies to the grid.

In Cornwall, partly because of our geography, we have seen a large number of schemes proposed. Cornwall Council is planning two £14m schemes of its own as well as some roof-top projects on schools and council houses. All of these may be under threat from the review.

There's no doubt that the current feed-in tariff is very generous. But that is not automatically a good reason to ditch it. Current government policy on cutting greenhouse gases in energy is based on four strands:

- carbon capture and storage
- renewable energy
- nuclear energy
- energy waste reduction

One of these strands - nuclear - is clearly going to be out of play for any commercial venture in the medium term but was the mainstay of the Government plans (much to the annoyance of the Lib Dems). Following the Japanese disaster, no business is going to be keen to build new power stations, even in a country far away from any earthquake zone.

And so the other three strands will have to pick up the slack. I have no doubt that the review documents were written well before the current crisis in Japan, but it seems illogical to be killing off a second strand at this time.

I very much hope that Chris Huhne and the Government will reconsider their current review proposals and will judge that, whilst a slight cut to the feed-in tariff level is needed, a cut to scheme size is the wrong message to send at this time.

I don't always agree with Cabinet Member Carolyn Rule, but on this issue I do. She said:

"So far not one commercial size solar farm has been built in the UK and, following these changes, I doubt if many will."

If the Government is committed to increasing renewable energy and meetings its climate change obligations, Chris Huhne should think again.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Bahrain question

Whilst the tragedy in Japan and the conflict in Libya are rightly filling the news bulletins, the conflict in Bahrain is also a huge story which deserves attention.

At roughly the same time as the uprisings broke out in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, protestors in Bahrain took to the streets demanding more human rights and equal treatment. The ruling family is from the minority sunni community and the majority of the population are shias.

For a long while, nothing much happened. Protestors occupied Pearl Square in the capital Manama and the government did little to stop them. Normal life pretty much returned to the kingdom and it seems that ordinary people even got tired of the protestors and lost sympathy with them. Then, just as the Libyan conflict was at its height and the earthquake and tsunami struck in Japan, the Bahraini government took action, calling for help from their neighbours in Saudi Arabia.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers are now on the streets and two days ago they attacked and cleared Pearl Square. An unknown number of people were killed and injured. There have been repeated reports of gunfire from helicopters and from the ground and recently opposition leaders have been rounded up and jailed and troops have even entered hospital operating theatres to arrest doctors because they treated injured protestors.

Nothing is universal in this sort of situation, but the reports from Bahrain suggest that those on the streets were peacefully demonstrating and that it was the Government which is using lethal force.

Now the UK government has taken action and recommended that all UK citizens should leave Bahrain. They are laying on flights to Dubai to help.

A country which violently suppresses peaceful demonstrators is not one which I believe the UK should be supporting - even if the government there has been helpful in our efforts in Afghanistan.

I have therefore put a question to the next council meeting to ask whether Cornwall Council has any investments in Bahrain or whether it invests in companies which do business with the government there. I don't know whether there are any such investments, but if there are we should be withdrawing from them immediately.

Why does Cornwall council have to run wordy and expensive adverts in local papers?

There's an excellent article in PR week by Peter Holt of Bristol Council arguing against the legal requirement for councils to run those horrendously long and expensive adverts in local papers which are filled with impenetrable jargon.

You can find the whole article here, but here's a taster:

We still have to pay for full page adverts on page 40 or 50 of the local paper, lodged between the premium line adverts (Flirt now – fun live chat – choose from ‘domination’, ‘mature’ or ‘fetish’ lines – only 60p per minute from a BT landline).

Not just full page statutory notices, but made up of endless paragraphs of impenetrable legalese. Not a single map or artist’s impression in sight, and plain English ruled out by statute too.

Seriously Mr Pickles, seriously? Previous Governments haven’t grasped this nettle before you, but will you? Wouldn’t it make the oft-quoted Mrs Pickles ever-so proud?

A hefty six figures sum in my Council area alone. Repeated across the whole country, this is many, many millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money wasted.

I don’t want a single local paper to go out of business – least of all in my city.

But if the Government is going to be serious about us all living in the modern age and cutting out waste, especially in frothy areas like council advertising, can we either have some action, or at least a little more up-front plain speaking about this scarcely-hidden, legally-enforced subsidy to newspaper barons?


From my point of view, I think it is right that our council should make sure local residents are informed about local planning and highways issues. The bit that needs changing is the prescriptive and legalistic way the adverts have to be written. What's wrong with putting them in plain English or even including the odd map or diagram? I'm not against spending money to make sure people know what's going on. I am against having to do so in a way that no one can read or understand.

Hat tip to Mark Pack at Lib Dem Voice.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Stadium for Cornwall gets go ahead for business plan

A full business plan for the Stadium for Cornwall is to be produced following today's Cabinet discussion on the subject. The cost will be up to £120,000 and will come from Council funds.

Before today's meeting, a group of Cornish Pirates supporters came to County Hall and delivered a petition with more than 11,600 signatures in favour of an all-singing all-dancing stadium. It should be noted that much of what they want is not included in the current plans.

The debate itself raised a large number of concerns. Several Cabinet members expressed reservations about the value for money and feasibility of the scheme but gave the go ahead for the next stage on the basis that the final decision would be taken in the future.

During the discussion, I raised concerns about the description of the stadium as being 'iconic' and 'inspirational'. I tend to run a mile from any developer describing a scheme as iconic and for Cllr Eathorne-Gibbons to suggest that this plan would be 'more iconic than the Eden Project' seemed an lesson in hyperbole gone mad.

There is no doubt that, if this was built, it would be a better facility than we currently have in Cornwall. But it would still only be a 10,000 seater stadium based around four 'shed-like' stands next to a car park. It won't be Twickenham or Old Trafford and I can't really see the inspiration in playing there. Far more inspirational for young people in Cornwall comes from meeting and coaching from top flight sports people rather than the venue they play in.

Other key points that were raised included the need for proper scrutiny of the finances of the clubs that seek to occupy such a stadium. My colleague Graham Walker raised this issue as there is no point in building a stadium if there is no long term financial security among the users. If they go bust or if their millionaire backers withdraw, the Council could be left funding a white elephant.

There was also a lot of concern about any 'deals' that might be done with supermarkets or other developers involved in the scheme. Whilst it may be right that we should consider planning issues completely separately from the business case, it is difficult to do so if the entire scheme relies on huge numbers of new houses and a new supermarket.

And who will end up paying for a stadium development? Cllr Rule has previously said that she doesn't want any public money involved and she said that this remains her preference. But even if there is no actual cash involved, it seems that this project could only go ahead with section 106 money thus denying the local community huge amounts of affordable housing, road links, schools and so on.

The final question is as to why the Council is paying the £120,000 to conduct the business case. Cabinet Member Cllr Rule said that this was so that we could retain control of the project. In contrast, Cllr Eathorne-Gibbons stressed that this was an entirely private sector led proposal. I agree with him that it should be entirely private and that the Council should not be involved as we simply won't get benefits from a stadium to justify the spending.

And so the business case will be developed. I hope that this will bust the myths about the affordability and the community use of the scheme and will also tie down the exact amount of public funding that would be needed for such a scheme.

Rob Tremaine to be Mayor of Launceston next year

Congratulations to Rob Tremaine, nominated by Launceston Town Council last night to be Mayor for the forthcoming year, and to Dave Gordon, nominated to be Deputy Mayor.

I know that both have been great ambassadors for our town over recent years and will do a great job taking over from current Mayor Paul O'Brien.

The only question is about Rob's current role as towncrier. In this role, he has often accompanied the Mayor to events and it might be difficult to combine the two!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Isles of Scilly Link set to cost Cornwall another £5m. So why isn't the Duchy paying anything?

Tomorrow morning, Cornwall Council's Cabinet will be asked to agree spending another £5 million on the renewed Isles of Scilly link project - the upgrading of the harbours at both Penzance and St Marys and the new boat.

As a consequence, there is unlikely to be any boat replacement fund built up so, once the new boat reaches the end of its life in 20 years or more, the councils will have to go cap in hand to the Government once again for a handout.

There has been a lot of controversy about whether this is the right way of providing the link. I don't want to get into that argument - particularly not from 80 miles away. But what concerns me is who is putting money into the project.

The largest contribution is coming from the Government (£35.3m). Also contributing is Cornwall Council (£15m) and a large chunk of convergence funding from both Cornwall Council and the Council of the Isles of Scilly (£11.75m).

The key player which is giving nothing is the Duchy of Cornwall, despite the fact that they own and manage the harbour at St Marys. They gave a good chunk of money to the planning phase but they say that they are not allowed to give money to the actual building works on land that they own and manage because it is unlikely to show a cost effective return.

Given that the alternative at this stage to any works being done is the loss of the service completely and thus the loss of most of the islands' income, I would think that this is a pretty indefensible line of argument.

I'm disappointed with the Duchy's decision on this. Both councils and the Government are stumping up what they can afford. So should the Duchy.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Vote to keep weekly rubbish collections

As Cornwall Council sends out its council tax bills for the coming year, residents will get the chance to have their say on the future waste collection arrangements for our area.
The ballot paper is on the inside back page of the Guide to Council services which is enclosed in every bill envelope and looks like this:
There are two choices. Option A means keeping weekly black bag collections and fortnightly recycling and garden waste collections plus the addition of a new weekly food waste collection. Option B means losing weekly black bag collections and instead having weekly recycling pick ups.
I have no hesitation in recommending Option A.

Every resident is entitled to vote in this ballot. Although there is only one ballot paper in each council tax demand, additional copies can be got from One Stop Shops, libraries or council offices or you can vote online.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Cornwall Council getting it right on A30 dualling

As I've noted before, I don't always praise Cornwall Council, but their proposal for the A30 between Temple and Higher Carblake is exactly the right approach.

This stretch of road is a notorious bottleneck in the summer which creates huge problems for all areas from Bodmin westwards and can be a turn off to businesses and tourists alike. Cornwall has been asking for the road (which is managed by the Highways Agency) to be dualled for many years. The scheme is currently listed by the Government as 'for consideration at some point after 2019' - in other words it has been kicked into the long grass.

But the Council has taken the lead and re-designed the scheme at a total cost of around £60 million. That's still a lot of money, but a heck of a lot less than the £130 million which was the estimated maximum cost when the Highways Agency considered it.

And so the Cabinet is being asked to agree a new approach to the Government based on these new figures. It is highly likely that we won't get much (or any) central funding for it, but moving the scheme forward at least makes progress a possibility and the Minister may agree to allow it to go forward with the challenge being to find the money.

So how could the money be found? The easiest - although most expensive - option would be for the Council simply to borrow it. Other options that seem worth pursuing include bidding for money from the next round of convergence or offering to take over the management and upkeep costs of the Cornish trunk roads (the A30 and A38) and thus receiving a 'dowry' for maintenance. Other options which I would like to see ruled out immediately would include a tolls system or a tourist tax.

But even though these scheme is little further forward, it is good that the Council is taking the lead in a scheme which will genuinely benefit the vast majority of Cornwall.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

An 'inspirational' shed for Cornwall

Last night, councillors were given a sneak preview of the plans for the Stadium for Cornwall (sic). I haven't been able to talk publicly until now as the Council has released the papers for the Cabinet meeting next week.

In short, what we have to date is a set of very colourful drawings and an idea about what the stadium might look like and how it might be funded.

The work to date has been done by a firm of architects and a team of stadium specialists working with a raft of council officers. The architect and specialist fees have been paid for by a grant of £78,000 to the Council. I presume that the officers' pay has come from council taxpayers.

The next stage is for more planning and development work to be done and this will cost £120,000 which will come from the Council's budget. The proposal to spend this money is the basis of the request to the Cabinet.

The stadium drawings envisage three options ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 seats and with a variety of facilities from the fairly basic to the fairly plush. It also seems possible that a basic stadium could be upgraded in the future to gain extra capacity if this is needed, but presumably the cost of retro-fitting would be higher than building the plush version from scratch.

The costs are said to range from about £14.6 million for the basic model up to £24 million for the plush version. But this does not take account of environmental standards which the Council has said it wants or fixtures, fittings and equipment - quite a hefty addition. The full masterplan - including relocating Truro Leisure Centre and adding in an all-weather pitch and hotel is estimated to come in at an eye-watering £41 million. The cost also ignores the price of the land itself. It is proposed that Cornwall Council donates this for a nominal fee.

As expected, the key to any stadium is to have the Pirates as anchor tenants. As I have said previously, they are the only team which could possibly make this stadium work. It is also suggested that Truro City FC might be subsidiary anchor tenants and that is one of the prime reasons for the site chosen at Threemilestone, next to the existing park and ride. Being near Truro is also said to make the facility attractive as a conference venue.

As for running costs, it is predicted that the basic model would cost about £615,000 to run per year and that the plush version would cost just over a million to run per annum. The prediction is that, once the income has been taken into account, the basic version would lose about £14k per year and the plush version make about £195k profit. I have yet to see the justification for these figures (it is admitted that they are vbery much a first guess) but am told that it includes the assumption that Truro City will be playing in the Conference national in front of gates of over 1000.

How would the money be found? According to the report from the experts, it would need to come from a mix of four sources:

- Private sector investment;
- Section 106 contributions;
- Other public sector investment (noted as unlikely due to the Olympics);
- Cornwall Council capital investment.

Crucially, it is envisaged by all the experts I talked to that there would need to be council and other public sector funding as there seemed no way that either a private sector business (presumably the Pirates) or planning gain (also known as section 106 money) could fund the whole project.

If s106 money was involved, this would be the equivalent of the entire contribution from building around 3000-5000 new homes with no contributions for affordable housing, new roads or schools. However one option which I understand is being looked at is to build a massive supermarket in place of some of the proposed housing and this is the only option being considered which would lessen the need for council money.

And so what would the Council and taxpayers get out of funding such a project if council money was needed?

The lead officer I talked to accepted that the Stadium would basically be run by the anchor tenants. In other words, the Pirates (with or without Truro City) would control what was able to happen on the pitch. I would suggest that this means that the opportunity for youth rugby and football, as well as concerts and festivals, will be strictly limited. Why? Because any groundsman would want to keep his or her pitch in as good a condition as possible and that means restricting the number of games on it. Even during the summer off-season most groundsmen want to avoid any play to allow the pitch to recover. The last thing we want is to be in the Wembley scenario of re-surfacing the playing surface every 9 months because of concerts or American Football games.

On the subject of concerts, the officers told me that they had not factored these into the use of the pitch. Applications might come forward, but they accepted that the space was far from ideal for that type of use.

And yet the gain to the Council is said to be that the Stadium will be inspirational for young people.

Personally, I agree that sport can be inspirational but I don't think that the stadia themselves can be except when they get to the size of Twickenham or Old Trafford. Certainly a set of four stands, only one of them with a roof, is hardly going to be the stuff that dreams are made of. It might be new and shiny for a few years, but the gloss soon wears off. For the £5 million or more that taxpayers might be asked to put into the project, I don't think we are going to get much inspiration for our buck. In my view, inspiration comes from meeting and being trained by your sporting heroes, not playing in a shed-like stadium in front of a couple of hundred fans. The right sort of community engagement can generate inspiration on a muddy park just as much as in a multi-million pound stadium. I'd therefore rather see such monies that appear to be available put into the excellent Cornwall Sports Partnership coaching events.

Much has been made recently about the other possible benefits to Cornwall resulting from such a project. The report says that the possible net benefits from the basic stadium might be just under £3 million per year and 114 jobs and from the plush version just over £3 million and 399 jobs. How these figures are arrived at I don't know. There is certainly no mention of the purported £20 million benefit to the Cornish economy from travelling fans. If such a study exists then it has clearly passed the experts by.

Of course, it is possible that a plan can be devised that does not require public money. If that does turn out to be the case then it is no longer a matter for me or my fellow councillors except with regard to planning and traffic concerns.

However, on the basis of the designs we have seen, I hope that there are a few changes made:

- At the moment, there only appear to be two changing rooms. If the plan is to have kids sports festivals and tournaments as well as exhibition games, then there need to be a lot more changing facilities than this;
- The designs don't show the floodlights. Given the size of the stands, they would have to be pylon mounted and therefore quite a consideration is missing;
- There is a lack of training or warm-up pitches shown on the plans at the moment. For a stadium to be truly viable - especially if used by more than one team - there needs to be adequate facilities that don't involve the main pitch.
- I am concerned about the confidence that businesses such as sports injury clinics will be rushing to take up the business space underneath the stands. These spaces will only have limited windows, look out over bare concrete and have no parking within 50 yards. Hardly an attractive proposition.

Of course, all of these flaws could be designed out before a formal planning application is made.

And so my conclusion is that this is still an interesting project without any proof behind it. I have no objection to it in principle if it is being undertaken purely by the private sector. But I don't see that enough benefit is involved for the people of Cornwall if public money is involved. The basic version is a typical 'shed' type stadium which will be an improvement on what is available at the moment but hardly inspirational. Even the plush version hardly takes your breath away and the full run out of that (as depicted in the drawings) will cost up to £41 million. At a time when Cornwall Council is cutting front-line services left, right and centre including funding for sports and other activities, I don't see that the investment in this project from public money can be justified.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Almost 10,000 people taken out of income tax by Lib Dems

Almost 10,000 people in Cornwall will stop paying income tax on April 1st thanks to the Liberal Democrats. And 200,000 more local residents will see their tax bill cut by up to £200 a year.

The tax cuts come as part of the Lib Dem commitment to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 per year. In the first tranche, the tax-free limit was raised to £7,000 in last year's budget and the Party is committed to making sure that no-one earning less than £10k per year pays any income tax by 2015.

This change will be particularly beneficial to areas like North Cornwall where there is low average pay. For someone working part-time and on less than £7k per year, an extra £200 can make a lot of difference. It's not the whole answer to ensuring people are better off but it's a great step in the right direction.

The exact figures, based on Government calculations, are that 9,800 Cornish residents will be taken out of income tax altogether and 194,200 will see a reduction of up to £200 per year.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Lib Dem proposes giving everyone a share in the banks

Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams has proposed a plan to give shares in Lloyds and RBS to every adult in the UK. The banks are part owned by the taxpayer since the banking crisis. We own 83% of RBS and 41% of Lloyds.

The plan would see each of the 46 million adults on the UK allocated shares - equivalent to roughly £1000 each. The shares would not be able to be sold until they rose above the price paid by the government but any profits would be kept by the individual.

One benefit of the plan would be to give ordinary people an incentive to see the banks return to profitability.

Stephen said:

"There is a danger that when the banks return to the private sector, it is business as usual. There is a general feeling in this country that we need to get something positive in return for the bail-out. This plan would recoup the public's investment and allow the taxpayer to get the benefit from any increased value in the banks."

You can watch Stephen explaining his plan here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12667465

Cornwall Council splurges more cash on consultants and agency staff

Cornwall Council's spending on temporary staff and consultants has risen even further. This is Cornwall has revealed that the total in December and January was £6 million for just two months - equivalent to £70,000 per day for consultants and £27,500 per day for temporary staff - despite Council Leader Alec Robertson telling councillors a couple of months ago that the figure was £750,000 per month on non-contract staff.

Some spending on consultants and temp staff can be justified. There will be times when specific expertise will be needed but is not available within the Council workforce and it costs a relatively high daily rate to buy this in. We also need agency staff (temps) to cover for illness and other absences. But it does seem that Cornwall Council is making far too much use of very highly paid consultants. Devon County Council, for example, spent less than one sixth of the Cornwall amount over the same period.

Far from cutting the cost of agency staff and consultants as Cllr Robertson said when he gave out the £750,000 a month figure, it seems that Cornwall Council is actually splurging more money in this area. For the sake of Cornish taxpayers, it has got to stop.

Backing St Piran's Day as a public holiday

At the last full council meeting, I asked whether the Council supported the idea of St Piran's Day being a public holiday. I got a mainly supportive answer from Culture Portfolio Holder Joan Symons.

Now several colleagues have submitted a motion for the next full council meeting backing the idea and seeking to make it formal council policy.

The motion links the move to the Government consultation on changing the current May Day holiday to a different day. The motion reads:

Cornwall Council notes the recent government white paper on changing bank holidays and instructs the chief executive to respond that any change in Cornwall should lead to the creation of a public holiday on St Piran's Day to reflect our unique cultural heritage.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Primesight eyesore now cleaned up

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the poor state of the advertising hoardings on Western Road.

I have now heard back from the owners, Primesight.

They have apologised for the lack of care given to the boards and have now promised to check them every two weeks whether or not the posters are being changed. They have also cleaned them up.

Liam Fox makes himself look a bit of a prat

The Sun has led with the story of the Ministry of Defence's £22 light bulbs. They carry quotes from a soldier who says he cannot stand buy whilst the MoD spends so much on a bulb which costs 65p in the shops.

So far, so much the tale we expect. Government waste and bloated bill padding by private contractors.

Then the Defence Secretary wades in to seek to shift the blame to Labour saying:

"This is classic evidence of how Labour wasted taxpayers' money and shows a complete lack of common sense. No wonder the last government left the MoD with a budget deficit of £38bn."

However now the story has changed somewhat with the MoD itself saying that the bulbs were not ordinary lightbulbs at all but precision made specialist fittings for a radar system and that the ministry only ordered about 5 per year.

I have no idea of who is actually right, but surely Dr Fox should have checked with his department before jumping in and blaming the former government. Or doesn't he let the facts get in the way of cheap political point scoring?

Dear Nick, I'm not panicking, but I am worried

Last night the Lib Dems dropped to sixth place in the Barnsley Central. As Nick Clegg has said, it was 'a kicking' for the party, but can we afford the complacency of saying that this was just a single result in a safe Labour seat.

According to some, this is not a result to take much notice of. It was a low turnout in a seat that we had little chance of winning. It has, correctly, been pointed out that other parties have lost deposits in by-elections yet have bounced back to perform well in subsequent local and general elections. This is particularly the case for governing parties. It's also the case that the Lib Dems, when in opposition, also lost their deposit once or twice but were still able to win when it mattered. I was the agent for the SE Staffs by-election in 1996 when we got 4.69% in a straight fight between the discredited Tories and a resurgent Labour. It did us little harm the next year when we did well in the General Election.

The message from both Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown is that we must hold our nerve and concentrate on what we are doing in Government. Paddy especially made the point that we inherited a country in such a financial mess that the benefits of our work would not be seen until 2015.

I am worried about this message and this strategy.

I certainly don't predict the end of the Liberal Democrats on the back of a single by-election result. But, as a governing party, we have to learn from our failures.

Remember when Gordon Brown and Labour lost convincingly in every by-election and every local election from 2008-2010. Each and every time they echoed the mantra that they would listen to the message that the electorate was sending them and learn from it. Did they change a jot? Of course not. They blindly blundered on with the economic policy that was wrecking our country. As a result they got an even greater trouncing in much of the UK in last year's General Election.

So what should the Lib Dems do now?

The first thing I think we should do is to go back to the voters of Barnsley Central. Find the people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but deserted us this time and ask them why. We should be respectful about this. They were not wrong in their decision (but that doesn't mean I agree with them).

I don't want to suggest that everything that the Government is doing is wrong - far from it. It is clear, for instance, that the re-building of our economy is the first priority and that there will be very harsh cuts to be made as a result. It's not likely that the core mechanics of this policy will change. But there are other things that we can be doing differently and we should be.

One of the laziest assumptions is that we are simply not selling the things that we are achieving well enough. This argument may have a certain truth around it, but it also echoes what Labour kept on saying when they were losing. A slightly better crafted soundbite is not going to change our fortunes.

What is going to work is the rapid introduction of more of the policies on which the Lib Dems won seats at the General Election, particularly those to do with public services. Many of the good things the Government has done in the past 9 months have been Lib Dem 'values' policies including on civil liberties and political reform. But, whilst these things are important, they tend to matter more to Lib Dem members than to 'ordinary' voters. As we have seen, a party tainted by sleaze and corruption successfully won a by-election in a seat where their former MP is in jail. What the Lib Dems need to do, despite the cuts, is to prove that we are winning the argument to get the Lib Dem vision of health services, our schools, police and local government enacted by the coalition.

We should also not be afraid to attack the Tories. I understand that we cannot do it on a national scale, but there is nothing to stop us highlighting the pigs ear they are making of running councils such as Cornwall where their waste and arrogance are staggering.

And finally, however true Paddy's comment about the benefit not being seen until 2015 might be, it is deeply worrying for a party built on a local government activist base to learn that every councillor is expected to take a kicking at the polls before we can hope to see an upswing in our fortunes. I know that Paddy actually understands our base much better than that. I hope Nick does too.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Cross party working group comes up trumps with vision for libraries

I know that a lot of the posts I write here are negative and attack the decisions being made by the Conservative run administration at County Hall. Today's report from the Library Working Group is altogether different however.

This was a well thought through and well researched piece of work led by Indie Cllr John Pollard and which makes recommendations about how our library service should develop in the future. I don't agree with absolutely every conclusion, but the document does set out a vision for the service and shows how, with the right investment, we can build on a slimline but high achieving branch network in the future.

John and his team make the case for libraries becoming community hubs - still based around the core library service, but reflecting local needs and providing localised services. He calls for investment in training and equipment to ensure that libraries can expand their range of services and provide key facilities and training to people who, for instance, don't have their own computer. He also calls for less reliance on fines as a source of income but for branch managers to be encouraged to seek other revenue streams without the danger that this money will disappear into some Truro black hole.

There will be an increased involvement of volunteers in our libraries in future, but the working group made clear that this cannot be at the expense of trained staff. Volunteers can add to service, not replace it. A future library service can also expand to allow many more people - particularly in rural areas - to use it. That's great news, but residents in isolated communities will need to see how this will work before they lose current facilities such as mobile libraries.

The devil will not be in the detail but in the implementation and we will see in June how his plans can be turned into reality. The danger is that the the costly aspects will be ignored whilst the ways of saving money will be rammed through. We were assured that this won't be the case - the plan will only work if it is taken as a whole - but it will be a difficult task for officers to accomplish in the current financial times.

As for how the planned future savings will be made, we still don't know. But we have a commitment to involving councillors properly in the decision making for next year, something that was almost completely absent this.

Massive parking charge rises will go ahead

The bare bones of today's call-in meeting on the issue of parking charges are that the decision was made not to refer the matter back to Cabinet. But the meeting served to highlight what an arrogant and ill-founded decision it was to increase parking charges so massively.

I realise the 'arrogant and ill-founded' are strong words, but time after time, officers were unable to produce any evidence for their decisions and relied on statements such as "We assumed..." and "We thought..." Councillors across the board became frustrated with the lack of hard evidence to back up the decisions that have been made and with the fact that the evidence that was put forward by residents was ignored.

My Lib Dem colleague Edwina Hannaford skewered the administration many times with tough questions about the lack of any real facts to back up the decision that was made.

One of the key questions was as to why officers had based their study of the effects on poorer people on just five areas in the West of Cornwall when many of the biggest changes are in the East. The reply was along the lines of "because we did". The fact that many poorer people live in the East and the public transport networks in North Cornwall in particular are almost non-existant were ignored.

Another issue concerned the assumption of a 5% drop in driver numbers due to the price increases. No evidence had been produced for this assumption and it was put to officers that they just plucked it out of thin air. Indeed, officers admitted that they had not even considered a detailed report from 2008 "because it was too old".

And the effect on town centres and businesses? It appears that the Council relied on the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses despite neither group turning up to more than a small handful of meetings and, in the case of the Chamber, failing to consult many town based Chambers. The Council has a commitment to work with businesses as partners but that apparently does not apply to parking charges.

The key message that came through was that, although there had been a wealth of 'consultation' on the parking changes, the responses that came from the public were almost universally disregarded and no hard evidence was ever gathered.

In the end, despite this quite incredible admission, the scrutiny committee voted not to refer the issue back to Cabinet with all the Conservatives and Independents present voting against referral and all the Lib Dems voting for. I am told that the administration groups had been lent on quite heavily to 'toe the line' on the issue.

I do want to pay credit to Independent councillor Bob Egerton however. For technical procedural reasons a Lib Dem councillor was excluded from taking part in the meeting and Cllr Egerton, who did not agree with the exclusion but was minded to vote with the administration, offered to 'pair' with him to ensure that neither side was unfairly treated.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

More than 1000 parking fines in Launceston last year

There were more than 1000 parking fines handed out in Launceston in the last 12 months according to figures obtained from Cornwall Council by the Cornish Guardian.

The 1039 fines were handed out for on- and off-street parking offences, ranking the town 5th in East Cornwall. Across Cornwall, Truro saw the most fines (7312) with Falmouth second at 4424. Newquay had almost 4000 fines and St Austell over 2000.

If the decision to massively increase parking charges is upheld following the call-in, then we can expect to see this number rising further as drivers abandon car parks and take their chances parking on-street.

Exeter joins the £9k club

Exeter University has announced that it plans to join the group of universities charging the maximum £9,000 per year for undergraduates students. It joins the likes of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College in seeking the top whack.

One of the biggest impacts in likely to be felt by students in Cornwall. Not only do many local young people study at Exeter, but the university is one of the partners in the Combined Universities in Cornwall, offering a range of degrees based at Tremough.

Exeter Uni is often parodied as the choice of the rich and already a number of journalists have been bandying about statistics on the number of car-owning students and suchlike. But it is also a vital chance for young people in Cornwall to be able to move onto higher education.

The CUC is part-funded by Cornwall Council. I hope that councillors on the appropriate scrutiny committee will ask those at Exeter University who made this decision to come and justify it in public.

Although the new higher fee scheme passed by Parliament is relatively progressive, £9,000 per year is still a massive amount of debt for a young people to contemplate taking on. I was very proud of North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson for voting against the fee rises.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The secret second home register

As BBC Radio Cornwall's Graham Smith has reported, Cornwall Council has compiled a register of second homes in Cornwall but is refusing to make this information public.

I can certainly see why it would be good to have this information in the open to use to help prevent electoral fraud. I can also understand why it might be seen as a burglar's charter. On balance, I agree with the Council's decision (also backed by the Information Commissioner) to keep it secret.

But that is not the end of the matter.

There is nothing to prevent the Council from using the information itself to make sure that the electoral register is clean and above board. As I blogged before, the Government believes that the current law on the rights of second home owners registering to vote is clear enough and they are not prepared to legislate on the issue.

If that is the case then I think it is perfectly reasonable for Cornwall Council to adopt a new policy on second home registrants following the advice of the Electoral Commission. The new policy would be that if anyone sought to register to vote from any property listed as a second home then they would be required to prove that this was, in fact, their main or joint main residence and was not a home maintained simply for recreational purposes.

In other words, if a person is a student or lives in two places for work reasons, it may be that one of their homes is registered as a 'second home' but they would be allowed to register to vote in each. But is one property is a holiday home - whether they use it for one week or five months of the year - then they should not be allowed to register.

I will be asking the Council's Electoral Review Panel to consider this proposition when it meets later this month.

Cornwall Council to spend £22,500 on stopwatches

Cornwall Council's priorities seem utterly at odds with what local people expect them to concentrate on. I have blogged before about the Chief Executive's £5,000 trip to New York and the £50,000 spent backing Plymouth's World Cup bid despite cutting library opening hours, services to homeless people and losing 2,000 staff.

Now a new waste of money has come up. Cornwall Council is advertising for a timing system for eight running and cycle races each year at a likely cost of around £22,500.

As the tender information makes clear, the Council wants to expand to organise more for other people and is hoping to make money from the service.

Yes, it's possible that the Council might be able to turn this into a business that makes a small profit. Even if it does make a profit on paper, does this take into account the cost of staff time and other overheads? But where does this project sit in the list of priorities of what they actually should be doing. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to spend the same amount of money on supporting people services (ie helping homeless people) where £1 spent now will save £5 or £6 in the future?

It's great that there should be sports events including triathlons, road and cycle races in Cornwall. But surely it's not the Council's job to supply the timing equipment or even to organise them. There are plenty of good sports clubs and community organisations that can do that and who should be supported to do so.

Once again, the Conservatives who run Cornwall Council seem to be willing to spend money on fripperies, but not on the services that really matter.

The Council's own tender document states:

Tender Title: Sports event electronic results timing system
Organisation Name: Cornwall Council
Reference Number:GS-CL-EAST001
Contract Type:Supply
Contract Size:20-50K
Short Description: Currently Cornwall Councils Leisure Service organises and manages a number of internal Council run sports events that include the Cornwall ‘Tor’ Cycle Sportive as well as Leisure Centre based triathlons and mass participation running races. In addition, the Leisure Service proactively engages with external event organisers and also commissions external event teams to provide technical event support, as and when required. The Leisure Service is currently looking to improve and develop the existing provision of events in Cornwall. It is viewed that by supporting existing provision and developing new opportunities, this will help to generate additional income and throughput for the Council. To achieve this, the Leisure Service intends to develop an ‘Event Team’. To help the ‘Event Team’ develop this service further, the Leisure Service is looking to purchase an established and reliable system that will provide an accurate record of a participants start and finish time; provide finish line timing for road running and cycling races and mass participation events; as well as cater for multi discipline events such as triathlon and duathlon. Currently the Leisure Service organises approximately 8 internal events that require an electronic timing and results service and the Leisure Service is looking to develop this portfolio of events up to approximately 15 per annum within 3 years. The proposed ‘Event Team’ will support as well as develop a commercial event timing arm that could be hired out to external event organisers.

How to admit a mistake

Full marks to Burger King for admitting they made a mistake in painting over a mural created by local kids.

The My A'th Kar Newquay (MAKN) group had painted the mural on the side of the Burger King in Newquay. The fast food outlet then whitewashed over it without telling the kids. Cue a lot of angry recriminations.

Now Burger King has admitted that it made a mistake and is giving £3,000 to the group and asking them to re-create the artwork.

The full story is here.