Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Council votes to save Camelford Leisure Centre

This afternoon Cornwall Council's Communities Scrutiny Committee voted by 8 to 2 in favour of my proposal to save Camelford Leisure Centre. We now have to hope that the Cabinet accept the recommendation.

When Cornwall Council set its budget in November last year, the recommendation (which Lib Dems voted against) was to withdraw from operating Camelford Leisure Centre. After a lot of protest from the local community, the Council agreed to provide some 'tide over' funding from the Leader's Contingency and from the Children Schools and Families budget. But this money is due to run out in April next year.

At the same time, the Council is handing the leisure centres that it manages to a new trust. The trust will still have to live up to detailed service contracts (so the service should stay the same) but will be able to make savings on VAT and rates.

The staff at Camelford and the local community have also been working hard to cut costs at the facility. From a net subsidy of £174,000 last year, they have reduced their costs and increased their income to such an extent that the net subsidy forecast for the current year is just £65,200. The money coming in from memberships has risen from just under £400 per month to £3000 per month (compared with nearby Wadebridge where the membership income is £1100 per month).

And yet the Council were still proposing to end funding for Camelford in April. The new trust would take the operation on, but there would be next to no time to find a long term solution before it was closed. So at today's meeting, I proposed that Camelford be treated on an equal footing with all the other council managed leisure centres including Launceston, St Austell and Bodmin. I think that if the council is making huge savings by moving to a trust then a small amount of these savings can be put aside to ensure that the large population in and around Camelford keep their leisure centre.

That's not to say that the efforts of the staff and local community were not needed. I don't think there would have been a hope of convincing my colleagues if the savings made to date had not been found. And for the future, all leisure services are going to require a degree of community support such as that which is being established by the Friends of Camelford Leisure Centre.

The other addition I was able to get for the new leisure trust contract is that the trust should be made to do specific work to enable people from very low income households and people with disabilities to access their leisure facilities. The danger is that the new trust works only with people who don't cost a lot to provide a service for. It may not be 'cost effective' to provide special classes for people with disabilities, but it is the right thing to do and I want to make sure that the trust does so.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Mike Clayton

I haven't been blogging for a few days because I'm on holiday, but I couldn't let the very sad news of the death of Mike Clayton pass without comment.

Mike was deputy leader of the Independent group and represented Wendron division on Cornwall Council - ironically just next door to where I am staying at the moment. He was previously a councillor on Kerrier.

Others knew him considerably better than I did, especially as his main interest was planning, a subject I don't really get involved with. However, he was the Chair of the Council's Electoral Review Panel and I was his Vice Chair for a while. Mike freely admitted that he did not bring a lot of knowledge of the subject to the table, but he had a forensic mind and a determination to understand exactly what was being discussed - sometimes a quality missing among councillors. We worked closely together on the new second home registration scheme.

Mike let it be known to fellow councillors a month or two ago that he was not well. However he made a reappearance at the last full council meeting and seemed in better health than he had for some time. Unfortunately, that has proved to be a false dawn and he has now been taken from us. He will be much missed.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Stadium for Cornwall faces another problem

It looks like the Stadium for Cornwall proposal is facing another headache - Truro City have been served with a winding up order by HM Revenue and Customs.

I've no idea what the winding up order is for - it might be a VAT issue or to do with PAYE. It might be for a large amount or it could be a stand off over a comparatively small sum. Whatever the case, it's a problem for the advocates of the stadium as TCFC were set to be one of the anchor tenants along with Cornish Pirates.

The planning application for the stadium and associated housing development has been submitted and will be considered by the Council in due course. The elephant in the room is how it will be paid for. Cornwall Council cabinet members have repeatedly said that there won't be taxpayer money going into the project and using s106 monies (ie planning gain) has also been declared illegal. However there was some confusion when the head of economic development said recently that council money might still be used. I checked with the Cabinet member responsible, Chris Ridgers who said:
I can assure you that as the Stadium for Cornwall proposal is still in the feasibility stage then no recommendations exist about funding or the sources of those funds. The output, with recommendation/s, from the feasibility study is scheduled to go to November’s Cabinet.
That appears to me to be a lot less certain than the comments made by his predecessor.

What is clear is that the issue of how a stadium might be financed needs to be decided out in the open before any ground starts to be broken. There have been offers made by the Pirates to cover the running costs as well as claims about the likely number of jobs created, but nothing yet about the actual building costs. If these are not clear from the outset the danger is that the people of Cornwall will end up paying for a white elephant for a very long time.

For the record: I've got no problem at all with the concept of a stadium. Subject to appropriate planning and highways policies being met, if a private developer wants to build it then I would welcome the development. However, with the acceptance by Cornwall Council that there will be little or no community use of the new facility, I see no reason why any further taxpayers' money should go into the project.

For lots of in depth analysis of the whole stadium saga, this is excellent.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Launceston Community Shop to close

Launceston's Community Shop has been so successful that it has gone out of business - at least temporarily.

The shop was the brainchild of the local Rotary who wanted to raise money for local projects and good causes. They were kindly given the use of the old Moores Furnishing shop in Southgate Street which has been unoccupied for some time. Since they opened on August 1st, they have raised many thousands of pounds by selling donated goods.

The trouble is that they have proved that a shop in those premises is viable and a new commercial tenant has been found. That's good news for Launceston of course. But it also means that the Rotary shop is looking for new premises and, until they find them, they will not be trading.

Their last day is October 1st and all their stock is half price until then. They have asked that supporters don't bring any more donations until they know where they are re-opening.

Getting empty homes back to use

There was a significant announcement yesterday by Andrew Stunell, the Lib Dem local government minister. He said that the Government are planning to allow councils to charge additional council tax on empty homes. Properties which haven't been occupied for two years or more could be subject to an additional 50% charge as a "nudge to owners to bring abandoned homes back into use."

This is the second piece of good news about empty homes in just a couple of weeks. The first was the awarding to Cornwall Council of just under £2 million in what is called the new homes bonus. This is money given on the basis of the number of new affordable homes built in Cornwall over the previous year. The council can spend it on bringing empty homes into use or on infrastructure projects to enable developers to build more affordable homes.

In Cornwall at present there are 9,407 empty homes. There is a legitimate debate about just how much new building we want in Cornwall, and where it should go. But what is unarguable is that it makes sense to get local families who need a home to occupy existing buildings first before we build thousands and thousands of new properties.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A day to be proud of Cornish blogging

Each year, Total Politics produces a list of the top political bloggers in the UK. This is broken down into various categories, including lists by party and by sector. In their list of the top blogging councillors, Cornwall provides no fewer than 6 of the top 30.

Congratulations to Jude Robinson (number 27), Stephen Richardson (16), Jeremy Rowe (14), Dick Cole (13) and Andrew Wallis (6). I came in at number 7.

It's interesting to note the spread of writers. There are two Lib Dems, two MK, one Labour and one Indie. Although there are a couple of Conservative councillors that blog, perhaps neither of them does so often enough to make the list. Hopefully they will do next year.

Our democracy cannot afford to make electoral registration optional

Big Bad Alastair Campbell has been writing for a while about a plan which he says is a Tory scam to take millions off the electoral register. And he's got a point.

There are three significant changes being proposed to electoral registration and the sum total of them all would have the effect of seriously damaging the UK's ambition of universal suffrage. Only one of them, however, is something that I would oppose outright.

The first change is the equalisation of the number of voters in a constituency. This was agreed as part of the parliamentary voting and constituencies act that also gave us the AV referendum. There's nothing wrong with the idea of moving to more generally equal constituency sizes. After all, it can't be right that Scotland and Wales are significantly over-represented compared to England and Northern Ireland.

But the rigid 5% rule - that every constituency must be within 5% of the ideal number - is a mistake. Why? Because as good as our electoral registration officers are, they are never going to be able to register everyone and the registration rate varies in different areas with inner cities having lower rates than rural counties. There are some who would argue that electoral office is all about representing those who want to take part. I would argue it is about representing everyone in an area regardless of whether or not they are on the register.

We also have some areas where it is possible to have too many people on the electoral register. In Cornwall, and other areas with large numbers of second homes, we have people who are also registered elsewhere. Whilst the numbers probably don't equate to those who fail to register, it is still a factor which makes a mockery of the idea that a 5% rule is a sound one.

The second change is one that I wholly support - that registration should be done by the individual rather than a 'head of the household'. One of the greatest threats to our elections is fraud and various cases have proven just how easy it is. When I worked for the Electoral Reform Society I sketched the outline of a paper called 'How to rig an election' which we decided not to take any further because it showed just how easy ballot rigging is.

Collecting personal identifiers (signatures and dates of birth) through individual registration won't stop all fraud, but it will make it much easier to catch those who try to mess with our elections and it's the best way forward.

Labour argued against that measure on the basis that it was likely to lead to lower registration rates. And this is where the third change comes in - the relaxation of the legal obligation to be on the electoral register.

This is the change I have a huge problem with. If the obligation goes then we are likely to see huge numbers of people disappear off the official lists. It may be because they want to avoid jury service, because they simply can't be bothered to fill in the form or for some other reason. Until now, there were teams of enumerators who could knock on their door and persuade them to register. At least there were if the local council was doing its job properly. There was also the threat of prosecution and a £1000 fine for failing to register. If these all go (to save money apparently) then we will see a massive cut in registration rates.

If the drop in registration were perfectly balanced across the country then it might be a case of 'so what'. But Alastair Campbell, Lewis Baston et al have a point. It won't be balanced. It will have a disproportionate effect on inner cities and poorer or less well educated people. That might or might not be biased against Labour, but it is certainly biased against the concept of fair and equal democracy.

So whilst the concept of equal constituency sizes is good, we cannot afford to be too rigid. Individual registration is a very good thing, but only if the time (and money) is put into making it work. But making registration voluntary is a terrible idea and Nick Clegg needs to think again.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

This year's Total Politics blog awards - a bit of a mess?

I don't want to seem ungrateful to those who voted (especially those who voted for me) or for Total Politics for organising this year's blog awards. But they're a bit of a mess, aren't they?

The aim was admirable - to recognise that some people now blog in many different places and that some blogs are written by a wide range of people. Iain Dale's own new group blog, for example, could hardly be said to be a one man effort, and so the awards are trying to treat it differently from this, which is very much a solo enterprise.

But this has resulted in almost twice as many 'winners' with up to four lists being released each day. There have also been people who have won twice. In the case of Richard Flowers, it might be that there are people who don't know his alter ego as a fluffy elephant, but he makes it in at both 44 and 59 in the top Lib Dems list. In the case of James Graham, Total Politics appear to have listed him at 43 for his own blog and 29 for his contributions to the Social Liberal blog - precisely the situation that the blogs/bloggers split was meant to avoid. I'm not up to speed enough on the Conservative and Labour blog scenes to know if it is the same there, but I hope not.

I think that these blog lists are valuable. They are not just about ego stroking. They help to introduce people to writers and blogs they haven't seen before. But I also hope that Total Politics have a bit of a rethink about the structure for next year.

Incidentally, I'm at number 17 in the Lib Dem bloggers list and number 28 in the Lib Dems blogs roll of honour. Many thanks to everyone who voted for me.


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Cabinet votes for major housing change

The new structure for council housing in Cornwall got the go ahead from the Council's Cabinet this morning. It means that council housing will be transferred to an 'arms length management organisation' - a private company which will do the job previously done by the authority itself. The new company will collect rents, manage repairs and run the HomeChoice allocations service.

In Cornwall, there are council houses in the former North Cornwall and Caradon areas and an existing ALMO in the former Carrick. That organisation (Carrick Housing) is a three star business which is recognised as having done a great job for tenants there.

The ALMO may be a private company, but the organisation will be limited by a set of restrictions which mean that tenants themselves will see virtually no change. The organisation will be run by a board of 6 tenant reps, 6 councillors and 6 independent people brought in for their specific expertise.

The process of changing to an ALMO has involved lots of consultation with the tenants reps and door knocking exercises on many housing estates. I regret that there won't be a formal ballot for all tenants, but I have no doubt that, if there were, the majority of those who vote would back the change.

This isn't going to be a major change for most residents (most won't notice the difference) but it is a step in the direction of seeking to provide a better service to the tenants of Cornwall.

Alec Robertson - in denial about budget fiasco?

As I've blogged before, there are huge holes in Cornwall Council's transportation budget at the moment. Both the parking income and bus fares reimbursement are out of kilter by £2 million or more, meaning that the overall department budget is 32% adrift. But apparently, these are not things that ordinary councillors have the right to ask questions about.

At today's Cabinet meeting, during an agenda item on budget management, I asked the Leader to explain why, given the assurances that were made about us being able to hit the parking budget, we were likely to fall 25% short in the net income by the end of the year. I also asked how the £2.2 million hole in the bus pass reimbursement budget had been allowed to develop unchecked for so long.

Despite the fact that Cllr Robertson often preaches about openness and transparency, I was told that he wouldn't give me answers as he didn't want the meeting to be about political point scoring. I find it incredible that the Council Leader appears to think it unreasonable to ask questions about huge holes in the council's budget during an agenda item about budget management. And, as one person I know said, to be such a patronising tw*t at the same time.

So the question for Cllr Robertson is this - why is refusing to discuss huge holes in the Council's budget? Is he in denial about the scale of the problem? Do elected representatives and the taxpaying public not have the right to know why their Tory run council is failing to control spending? And if he can't control the budget and isn't prepared to explain his failures, is he still the right person to run Cornwall council?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Parking charge proposals for next year released

It may seem like we are still arguing over this year's, but the first set of proposals for next year's charges for Cornwall Council car parks have just been published.

The parking panel have gone to a lot of effort with these new proposals and they are better than the current set of charges, but there are still many issues with them.

First, the bare figures for Launceston car parks. For the three town centre 'short stay' car parks, the charges are:

First hour - 50p (no change)
1-2 hours - £1.50 (down from £1.70)
2-3 hours - £3 (up from £2.80)

Plus, in response to the complaints from many local businesses, an 'all day' tariff is being reintroduced at the Walk House (Tower Street) car park only of £5.50.

For the Cattle Market Long Stay car park:

First hour - 50p (no change)
1-2 hours - £1.50 (down from £1.70)
2-3 hours - £3 (up from £2.80)
All Day - £4.50 (up from £4)

These figures are clearly better than they might have been. Keeping the 50p first hour charge and reducing the two hour charge is good - even at the cost of an increase in the other charges. The recognition that there are some people who need to stay all day but cannot use the Cattle Market long stay car park is welcome, although I would have preferred an all day charge of £5, not £5.50.

However, the guiding rule for all these charges is that the overall budget had to stay the same. This is in spite of the massive under-performance by the Council in reaching this year's budget. At the moment they are running about £2 million short which seems to indicate that they have raised parking prices too high and people are not prepared to pay them. We have to wait and see what action the Cabinet will take to rectify the budget but I hope they have learned that they cannot simply raise charges even higher.

The other key issue is season ticket prices. This year prices have risen from £195 to £400 and the indication was that prices would rise again to £600. I'm very glad that this price rise has been abandoned and the basic cost will be held at £400.

However, we have complained many times that this figure is still way too high and that many town centre workers are low paid. To their credit, the parking panel have tried to find a way of providing a discount for low paid workers. But their solution - £300 for those in receipt of working tax credit - is wrong in two regards. It is still far too much to charge low paid town centre workers and working tax credit is only available to people aged over 25. So the many young people who work in our town centre will still find themselves paying almost a month's take home pay just to park. I think that this is an area where the Council needs to think again, both to reduce the charge still further and to find a discount system that does not discriminate against young people. As it stands, I think that the proposal will fail an equality impact assessment.

The Parking Panel will discuss these recommendations on Thursday. After that, they will go to the Cabinet for approval before going out to public consultation. If they pass all of that, they will come into force in April next year.

Prediction - Boundary changes won't happen

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Here's a prediction (which isn't exactly unique). The boundary changes proposed today won't happen.

The proposals were needed because of the decision in Parliament to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and to force all seats to be within a small margin of error of a uniform size. There are a few exceptions - the isolated Island seats and a sop to the Tories on the Isle of Wight - but the room for manoeuvre for the Boundary Commission has been very small.

And so they have come up with a set of proposals which please almost nobody and which lead to the game of winners and losers.

Labour oppose the concept of change because they believe that it is being done for political reasons. They're right in this - at the moment the average Labour seat is smaller than the average Conservative seat.

To date the majority of Lib Dems have gone along with the change as it is a Government Bill. But the prospect of losing around a quarter of their MPs, as well as the local issues such as a cross border Devonwall seat, mean that there are many Lib Dems who are no longer sure this is a good idea. Even some favourable notional results are enough to convince many of the desirability of change.

Even among the Conservatives, there are many sitting MPs who will be out of a job if these changes go ahead. They can't all get peerages to soften the blow and some of them are seeing their seats disintegrate into four or five new ones.

So whilst the Boundary Commission hold their hearings and consider tinkering at the edges, the reality is that the real decision is whether we have any changes at all. That vote will take place in early autumn in 2013 and my guess at the moment is on a no vote.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Guardian's Patrick Wintour proved to know nothing in boundary review predictions

With breathless excitement I awaited the outcome of the boundary review. Who would be right- Patrick Wintour of the Guardian with his confident prediction of Lib Dems Norman Baker and Mike Hancock scrapping it out for a joint Lewes/Portsmouth seat, or commonsense which says that two place 50 miles apart are unlikely to be joined together given the large conurbation sitting between them.

I won't beat about the bush. Commonsense won and Mr Wintour lost.

Mind you, in both cases there has been an interesting outcome to the review. Portsmouth changes from being north and south to east and west and Lewes is now combined with East Brighton.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Council's 32% budget problem

Cornwall Council cabinet papers for next week's meeting have revealed that the authority's transportation department is a massive 32% over-budget so far this financial year. The extra spending is down to bus passes (£2.6m) and car parks (£2m).

In an organisation with a budget as big as ours there will always be variances. The most common over-spend comes in adult care which is almost entirely demand led. But even there the difference from the projected spending is usually less than a couple of percentage points. That service is currently 0.7% over budget.

And at a time of massive structural change there will be some projects which run behind the original timescale. Take, for example, the decision to move the council's leisure services to a trust. The implementation of this is being delayed by 6 months and so the savings won't be made until a bit later, but that is a price worth paying in order to make sure the solution is right for the long-term future.

But the transportation budget is different.

The first shortfall is in the income from the council's car parks which is currently running about £2 million short of target. At the time that the prices were set, I and my Lib Dem colleagues argued that they were totally unrealistic and that the council would never achieve the income they wanted. Parking isn't a cash cow and if you put prices up too high then people will stay away. Not only does the council lose money but local shops and businesses do as well.

The second overspend is in bus pass reimbursement, a subject I have blogged about frequently in recent weeks. That is a budget shortfall that was known about back in February but the Council did nothing about until July.

I would suggest that before Cornwall Council thinks about any more whiz bang projects they concentrate on getting their own buses in order.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Buses - Two steps forward, One step back

After the council's inquiry day last month I was very hopeful that the awful prospect of bus operators being forced to withdraw lots of services had been averted. Unfortunately, I reckoned without Cornwall Council.

At that meeting we seemed to come to a sort of consensus about the need for the council to talk to bus companies about the thorny issue of concessionary fare reimbursements (ie how much money we give them to carry bus pass holders). All sides seemed to accept that there needed to be long and complex talks and the impact of any decision needed to be carefully worked out. At that time it seemed there was unlikely to be any real change before next April.

And then someone stuck their size 12s into the debate and demanded that as much cash be saved this year as possible. So instead of lots of complex talks, all discussions with the bus companies on the reimbursement rate have been stopped and the council has decided to try to impose a solution as soon as possible. If they are lucky, they might save £200,000 this way. That's part of a £2.2 million shortfall that they identified back in February and failed to tell councillors about or do anything until July.

The price to be paid for saving this money is a complete loss of trust with bus operators and the real risk that the routes will be cut in any case. And we still don't know how the great big hole in the budget was allowed to sit there for so long.

As for the impact of this decision - another big unanswered question. MK's Andrew Long said that it was like someone cutting off your legs and then telling you that if they did so you would be unable to walk. We sort of need to know the outcome before the irrevocable decision is taken. So rather than a high level equality impact assessment now and the details in January, we would like the postpone the decision until we know the effects. Unfortunately the decision is set to be taken next Wednesday.

And what will be the effect? The Council appear to have plucked a new reimbursement rate of 50% out of the air (you can tell because it is a suspiciously round number) and the operators have already said they cannot operate some routes with this rate. So they will be likely to give the statutory notice period that they are axing those buses. I suspect that many routes in and around the rural areas of North Cornwall will be among those to go.

Today's meeting did agree some useful bits and pieces (although we have to wait and see how many survive cabinet). We have asked that the changes be delayed until a re-tendering of the entire bus network happens. This is not because we really support the re-tendering. I suspect most members don't really understand the likely effects. But re-tendering will cause a big upheaval and we don't want to force two within a matter of three months. We also asked for buses to be considered a top priority for any spare cash. But there a number of other calls on new funding and the Conservative led administration seems to think the best answer at a time when buses (and other services) are being cut is to stick another £7 million in reserves.

Today's meeting was very useful - if only to remind us of just how little some within the administration appear to value our bus network. We move on to next Wednesday when the decision will be taken.

A huge step forward on second home voting

Cornwall Council yesterday made a huge decision which will clamp down on second home voting in future elections - although it went through without a debate and with little notice.

The decision was based on my suggestion to the Electoral Review Panel and means that all applications to join the electoral register from properties registered as second homes will be subject to additional checks known as a 'Type B Review'. This will involve ensuring that second homes are not used for purely recreational purposes.

This is an issue about which I, and North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson, have been campaigning for a number of years. By making it harder for second home owners to register to vote, we will be upholding the law that limits voting rights to people who actually live in an area.

Around one in twenty households across Cornwall is a second home and owners receive a council tax discount. With that number of properties, there are potentially tens of thousands of people who could be added to the register despite having little connection with the local area.

Cornwall Council's first step was to ask second home owners to consider registration. But asking nicely was never going to be the answer to a problem like this and so Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council pressed for a more robust solution and this has now been delivered.

We'll see how this works. Will people be willing to sacrifice their council tax discount in order to retain the right to vote? I doubt it. But will people claim that their second home use is no longer purely recreational because they take their Blackberry or iPad with them and so can access their work emails? Regardless, it's a great step in the right direction and, despite the lack of debate, this is an important measure.

UPDATE - This story is getting some significant national coverage with both the Guardian and Telegraph running it and Radio 4's You and Yours programme featuring a discussion.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lib Dems welcome Cornwall Council commitment to fair funding

Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council have welcomed today's decision to back our call for fair funding of council services across Cornwall.

My colleague Ann Kerridge, who represents Bodmin East on Cornwall Council, proposed the original motion and spoke in today's debate. She said:

"Since Cornwall Council was created there have been a lot of accusations that some parts of Cornwall are treated more favourably than others. We want to find out whether this is true and to what extent some areas are better off than others."

"If the study proves our case that East Cornwall and the far West is missing out on investment and the right services then we will be demanding that this disparity is put right."

Our local MP Dan Rogerson has also been campaigning on this issue for many years. He said:

"When the Conservatives took control of Cornwall Council two years ago they took apart all the Lib Dem plans to ensure that there was fair funding across Cornwall. They also ripped up the rulebook on local decision making, dragging all powers into County Hall. This Lib Dem motion will show just how much some areas are missing out and the new Localism Bill will help to devolve powers to local areas."

Full text of the motion agreed by Cornwall Council today:

From now on the Council
i. monitors the number and total salary of its employees in each area (east, west and central) Cornwall by Reporting of employee work base location, linking to salary (via building new report functionality into the ERP HR system);
ii. monitor its spending in each area of Cornwall by reference to the capital programme as the main investment vehicle for the authority;
iii. carry out impact assessment when developing policy, deploying resources, planning events or making service reductions to ensure and demonstrate that the whole of Cornwall is treated equitably;
iv. ensure that any such analysis or assessment takes full account of sparsity, travel distances and availability and frequency of public transport as well as other relevant considerations; and,
v. officers from the community intelligence function within the Communications and Strategy service work with the informal Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee to review how evidence sources (such as neighbourhood and community network profiles, and individual town evidence bases) could be used as a tool to scrutinise the effectiveness of resource allocation.

Cornwall Council not allowed to end tobacco investments

This afternoon I asked the council why it was still investing in tobacco companies through its pension fund when we also have a clear duty to promote the stop smoking message through our public health responsibilities.

I was grateful to receive an assurance from the health portfolio holder Carolyn Rule that she is supporting out public health work and would like us out of tobacco investments. But I was disappointed to be told that we are not allowed to withdraw the pension fund money from tobacco firms.

Apparently the only duty of our fund managers is to maximise income and they are not allowed to consider ethical factors, even when they directly contradict some of our other work. So whilst we are not forced to invest in tobacco, we are not allowed to withdraw. Our pension committee members are trustees of the fund and they could apparently be sued if they gave an instruction to the fund managers which resulted in anything other than the maximum return.

So, given that Cornwall Council's hands are tied in this way, it seems the only option is to get the law changed to allow us to set some ethical standards - or at least not be forced to carry on supporting an industry we would like to see closed down.

Cornwall Council says no to taking on police returning officer role

Cornwall Council this morning voted by 47 votes to 36 to recommend that our Chief Executive does not take up the post of returning officer for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. In doing so, we said that we are opposed to the potential under-funding of elections, worried about the risks involved and concerned about another step towards Devonwall.

The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are currently being discussed by Parliament. It appears that the original proposed election date of next May is to be postponed until the autumn but the concerns are still there.

The first concern is over the under-funding of elections. Cornwall Council is very good at running elections and has excellent staff. In terms of the the basic mechanics I have no doubt that we will come in at (or even under) budget. But the electoral system being used for these elections is a new one (at least to those of us outside London). The Supplementary Vote system needs explaining and Cornwall Council has asked for a guarantee that a proper local voter education campaign will be run. But we haven't got that assurance from the government and there is anger about that.

There is also a high degree of risk in taking on responsibility for running an election across Devon and Cornwall. I have no problem with our Chief Executive acting as the Returning Officer for Cornwall as that work involves protecting the reputation of the authority he heads. But if he takes on Devon as well then he will have to spend a lot of time (when he is paid to be in Cornwall) sorting out those problems.

Many of those who supported the proposal were also concerned that the commissioner elections are a further step towards Devonwall and there was strong support for a Cornish Constabulary.

The end result was a vote recommending that our Chief Executive remains as returning officer only for elections in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. That shouldn't be taken as a comment on his abilities - he's very good at this work - but it is a statement of principle that elections should be properly funded and that we should not be moving further towards Devonwall.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Cornwall Council's £28k 'volunteers'

Cornwall Council's Conservative Leader says that the members of the authority's Cabinet should be thought of as volunteers and should not be subject to any formal expectation of how often they need turn up to work despite each taking home more than £28,000 of taxpayers' money.

I wrote to the Leader back in August after I received complaints from a member of the public and a voluntary sector organisation about a particular cabinet member being absent for the whole summer. I asked Cllr Robertson if he could tell me what expectations are placed on cabinet members for their work hours and how much holiday was allowed per year. I also asked him to tell me how much holiday each cabinet member had taken over the last two years.

In his reply, Cllr Robertson said:
"councillors are essentially “volunteers” who receive allowances to compensate them for the time committed and the responsibilities they undertake."
It is certainly true that legally councillors are not employees in the normal sense. But when cabinet members each receive £28,828.91 from the public purse (and the Leader receives £34,660.93), surely we should be setting some sort of expectation on them in terms of the hours or days that they work. The public would certainly expect some sort of monitoring of how their money is being spent.

I used to work for Southwark Council which was, at the time, a joint Lib Dem/Conservative administration. Each of the executive members there had an expectation of full time council work and they booked holiday time like normal employees. It was not forbidden for them to have other jobs, but if they did they received proportionately less in terms of allowances. Cllr Robertson said he thought it would be 'inappropriate' to have such a scheme in Cornwall. If it is felt appropriate in Southwark (and other authorities around the country) to ensure taxpayers' money is spent wisely, why is it not here?

Just to avoid misunderstandings, I do believe that the Council's Cabinet members should be paid a special responsibility allowance and we have an independent remuneration panel which decides on the correct level. The change I want to see is for cabinet roles to be seen in practice (if not legally) as a full time job with expectations of working hours and holiday allowances accordingly.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Council breaking own guidelines on cars for top officers

Cornwall Council is breaking its own guidelines by providing senior officers with personal cars despite those officers only doing very limited business mileage each year. Details released to the Liberal Democrats show that only one of the six top officers provided with personal council cars uses it for more than the 20,000 business miles per year guideline that applies to more junior officers.

In addition, two senior officers in the fire and rescue service have been provided with 'executive luxury cars' costing around £30,000 each.

We are concerned that Cornwall Council is wasting money providing perks to senior officers at a time when more junior staff are being made redundant. These figures show that Cornwall Council appears to be breaching its own guidelines on who should be provided with a car.

There are many staff who drive tens of thousands of miles per year providing services to the public. In an area like Cornwall, it is impossible to provide decent services without racking up the miles. Much of this work is done using pool cars and some officers who do more than 20,000 miles per year on council business are given their own 'take home' council vehicle.

But this 20,000 guideline doesn't seem to apply when it comes to some of the top officers. Of the six staff members at head of service level or above who have council cars, only one exceeded the 20,000 mile limit last year. It's not as if the remainder fell just short. None of them drove more than one third of the 20k threshold last year, yet they kept their company car when it could have been reallocated to another officer saving the council the money it would have cost to buy yet another new vehicle.

Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service thought it appropriate to buy new luxury cars for two of its top officers. Whilst more junior staff in that service make do with Vauxhalls which cost £16,367 each, the top brass are driving a brand new Audi A5 (cost to the authority £30,465) and A6 (cost to the authority £28,714).

The Audi A5 is described by a leading reviewer in the following terms: "Coupes don't come much classier than the Audi A5. It's more a grand tourer than an out-and-out sports car, but none the worse for that."

The same reviewer describes the Audi A6 as: "An impressively well-rounded executive saloon.

At a time when local residents are seeing well used front line services disappear in Cornwall Council cuts, it is plain wrong for the authority to be providing take home cars for top brass who do few miles a year on council business or luxury Audis when cheaper cars would do the job.

UPDATE - Cornwall Council is apparently responding by saying that there is no '20,000 guideline' for whether officers get a car and that the fire service Audis were bought at a discount.

Hmmm.

On the first count, why on the 23rd August did the Assistant Chief Exec say on Radio Cornwall that there is such a guideline? And are the Council really claiming that driving just 6,000 business miles a year is enough to justify being given an £18,000 car at taxpayers' expense? If that were so, then most councillors would justify receiving such cars too (and no, I'm not advocating that).

On the second count, it really doesn't matter what discount was received, these are still cars that cost almost twice as much as the more junior officers (who do more than 20k miles a year) cars. They are luxury cars and the extra spending is a waste.

Cornwall Council and ethical investments

Today's Western Morning News carries a story about campaigners against the arms trade urging Cornwall Council to pull out of its investments in BAe Systems. This story is along the lines of my question to full council next Tuesday which is about council investments in tobacco firms.

People will have different views about the appropriateness of the local authority investing in different types of companies. To me, the investments in tobacco firms are among the worst because one of the jobs of the council is to persuade people to stop smoking as part of the public health remit.

In response to questioning, Cornwall Council has said:

"The overriding concern of the council's pension fund is to provide a sound financial return for thousands of people reliant on the pension in Cornwall. The council aims to keep a balanced portfolio of investments and has a publicly available Statement of Investment Principles which is rigidly adhered to. A local authority pension fund cannot, however, decide unilaterally not to invest in areas such as the arms industry if doing so would impact on the overall investment return achieved."

Of course the council has a duty to get a good return for its investments. But this cannot, in my view, be its only consideration. When I worked in the private sector and had a personal pension I was given the option of an ethical investment strategy and a number of options within that based on what my personal ethics thought acceptable or not. Surely the same options are available for local authorities?

And what about those companies which come into day to day contact with the council or bid for contracts with it. Recently Domino's Pizza and Morrisons have been applying for planning permissions and Serco are regular bidders for council contracts. All are companies in which the authority holds shares.

Cornwall Council's pension investments are made for the benefit of its staff - current, former and future. These staff deserve to get a decent return, but also the chance to have a say about the sort of companies they want their money invested in.

My question on Tuesday is about the specific conflict between the council's investments and our public health role. But I hope that our pensions committee will act swiftly to review the whole range of investments and come up with an ethical strategy slightly more community aware than the current Gordon Gecko viewpoint.


A bit of a row about process

There's a new row brewing over the council's long running discussion of buses and the reimbursement rate paid to operators for carrying free pass holders.

After the inquiry day held a couple of weeks ago, the issue now goes to the Environment and Economy scrutiny committee to be held next Wednesday. The agenda for that meeting has been published, but the relevant paper is marked 'to follow'.

Travelwatch SouthWest is a user group which has provided some excellent advice and information to councillors as we try to get to the bottom of this issue. Not surprisingly, they want to have their say to the scrutiny committee on Wednesday. The rules state, however, that they need to get their comments in by noon today. But, says Travelwatch director Gordon Edwards, how can they do that if they don't know what the paper they are commenting on says?


Thursday, 1 September 2011

That it should come to this

I've been involved in quite a few football related protests in my time. I've turned my back on play. I've sat in the away end. I've blown up and released black balloons to drift across the pitch. I've proposed motions on fan ownership at party conference and lobbied MPs to support the fan ownership advocates. I've stood outside the ground as my team played inside. I've written for the 'alternative matchday magazine' which outsold the official programme five to one.

But I've never heard of the playing staff going on strike before.

Sure, you get the occasional prima donna in the Premiership who decides that he is being harshly treated and refuses to play. But it's never been a team thing. And it's certainly never been done with the manager's tacit approval.

But that's the situation at Plymouth Argyle.

I'm not an Argyle fan. I was at Home Park last month to watch my team (AFC Wimbledon) get a wonderful 2-0 win and celebrated like a loon at that result. But I was also at Home Park on occasions when I was growing up and wanted to go and watch some football. PAFC was my nearest team and, whilst I wasn't a fan, it was still good to go to see them play and I have always looked out for their results.

Their recent trials and tribulations should not make happy reading for any football fan. The news of the 'takeover' doesn't seem to have resulted in the wages being paid and the staff and players are now considering withdrawing their labour. I hope that this (at a time when the Premiership and Championship are not playing) might gain them some attention.

What is happening at Home Park is truly terrible and Messers Ridsdale and Heaney need to get their act together and ensure everyone is paid what they are due. If not there will be nothing for it but for the FA to step in and forces some return to a semblance of normality. (I don't have a lot of confidence in anything involving the FA and sense however).