Thursday, 20 December 2012

Kevin Lavery off to New Zealand?

Radio Cornwall is tonight reporting that Kevin Lavery, Cornwall Council's Chief Executive, is off to New Zealand to take up a new job as CEO of Wellington City Council. The news is also being reported by one of New Zealand's leading papers, the Dominion Post as their lead front page story - see image left.

My colleague, Jeremy Rowe has made it clear that, if this is true, we would expect Mr Lavery to work out his full notice and should not receive any form of 'golden goodbye'. We also believe that his replacement can expect a lower salary package than Mr Lavery received.

Jeremy's full statement is as follows:
"Kevin Lavery has done an immense amount to make the new unitary authority work. He has overseen the transition from seven councils into one and ensured that the savings were made to protect front line services. It is therefore disappointing that he should be leaving before the job is finished and at a time when the council is facing its biggest challenges yet."
"Liberal Democrats will be seeking to ensure that there is a smooth transition to his replacement and we will be expecting Mr Lavery to work out his full notice period with no golden goodbye."

"We will also be looking to continue to cut the overall Cornwall Council wage bill and will be asking for Kevin Lavery's successor to be appointed on a lower salary than is the case at the moment."
Image of Dominion Post courtesy of The Newseum, of course.

Pickles the hypocrite?

Eric Pickles has published his own list of 50 ways he believes that councils can save money.

Number 20 is:

Cancel away days in posh hotels and glitzy award ceremonies

But what's this? A tweet lands in my inbox making a curious announcement:
C'llr Awards @CllrAwards
Confirmed: Rt Hon Secretary of State Eric Pickles keynote speaker @LGiU Cllr Awards Ceremony in Feb 2013!
And Mr Pickles also made an appearance at the (very posh and swanky) Hilton St George's Park for the recent County Councils Network conference.

Surely there can't be two Eric Pickles? Or is he being a tad hypocritical?

TRAC Update - The Cornwall Council spin

Cornwall Council has issued a press statement this morning about the decision to abandon the TRAC project to deliver a multi-use trail from the town to Egloskerry. Originally, this promised to be almost entirely off-road and to deliver an extension of the steam railway from New Mills to Egloskerry.

But reading the Cornwall Council spin, you would never know that. Instead, the new plan to have a half on-road, half off-road trail as far as the scrapyard is portrayed as some sort of victory.

The council spin claims that they had a 'positive meeting' with Defra and that the government department was 'willing to consider modifications to the project'. It seems that Defra's pointing out that Cornwall Council had flagrantly breached the terms of the original deal wasn't considered newsworthy. Neither was the demand from the Government that the council hand back around half a million pounds.

The people of Launceston who have backed this project from the start deserve better from the Council than this deceit.

Launceston Schools getting a £366,300 funding boost

Schools in Launceston are getting a funding boost of more than a third of a million pounds next year thanks to an increase in the Pupil Premium. This targets extra money to schools depending on the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds they have.

The pupil premium was a key commitment of the Liberal Democrat manifesto at the last election and started of at £600 per pupil per year. But from next April that will rise to £900 per pupil.

In Launceston, the amount each school will receive from April next year will be:

St Catherine's  £45,900
St Stephens  £77,400
Launceston CP School  £43,200
Launceston College  £199,800

The Pupil Premium covers any primary or secondary school pupil who has been registered for Free School Meals in the past six years. For 2013/14, the Premium will be worth £1.65bn, or £900 per pupil, in total.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

TRAC project cancelled by Cornwall Council

This afternoon I got the very disappointing news that the TRAC project - for a multi-use trail between Launceston and Egloskerry - is not going ahead. Together with my colleagues and local MP Dan Rogerson, I have put out the following press release:

Councillors and MP slam Cornwall Council over TRAC failure

Launceston councillors and North Cornwall's MP have slammed as incompetent Cornwall Council for dropping the promised multi--use TRAC trail from the town to Egloskerry.

"Cornwall Council was given more than a million pounds to provide the trail," said Cllr Adam Paynter, Liberal Democrat councillor for Launceston North. "All local councillors supported the idea as it would attract visitors and enable local people to enjoy our wonderful countryside. We are bitterly disappointed this project has now been dropped."

"More than half a million pounds will have to be handed back to the government and there will be little or nothing to show for all the money already spent. The only possible trail will be as far as the scrapyard - and much of that will be on-road."

Cllr Alex Folkes, Liberal Democrat councillor for Launceston Central, added:

"While we have supported this project from the off, we warned the council they were not making the expected progress. At every stage successive cabinet members assured us everything would be fine. Now it is clear the council have let the people of Launceston down through their incompetence. Both Julian German and Steve Double - the cabinet members responsible - should be ashamed."

"The original project plan was a partnership between the council and Launceston Steam Railway. But the council lost the support of the railway and of many local residents when they failed to guarantee to keep the way clear for a possible future railway extension. Cornwall Council didn't listen to local people and failed to understand what was important to them."

Cllr Sasha Gillard-Loft, Liberal Democrat councillor for Launceston South, said:

"This is such sad news. Despite being surrounded by open country, the people of Launceston have little access to walking, riding or cycling routes which TRAC would have made available. This is a huge blow to local business people who could see the project's possibilities. It was expected to bring more than 10,000 extra visitors to Launceston each year."

Dan Rogerson, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, added:

"I have backed the TRAC project from the start and am as disappointed as anyone else that the council has failed to make it happen. They are now talking about starting a new project using European funding. Just like all the other local Liberal Democrats, I would support such a bid. But we have had these promises before and I think there will need to be change at the top before the council is capable of delivering what Launceston should have had."
There is still a possibility that a short section to the East of the town might go ahead. This would only be as far as the roundabout at the end of the industrial estate but would have the added benefit of providing a new pedestrian link to the Ridgegrove Estate. The deadline for a decision on this section is the end of January and I am very much hoping that it can be salvaged.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Pickles brands Cornwall Tory policy 'obscene'

Eric Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Local Government, has branded the Cornwall Tory policy on council tax benefit 'disgusting' and 'obscene' and he said that the councillors promoting it are 'unambitious'.

I don't always agree with Mr Pickles, but in this case he is right.

According to today's Western Morning News, Mr Pickles was asked about plans by some councils to end the granting of full council tax relief to some of the poorest families. He said:
"That struck me as being obscene,"

"I thought it was a singularly unambitious scheme, just taxing people who are in receipt of council tax benefit rather than helping them get into work, dealing with mistakes and fraud."

He added: "Their job is not to tax the poor. It's to help the poor. That's why I'm so angry with these plutocratic leaders who are not prepared to get alongside the poor. Who are happy for people to stay on benefit."
This isn't just a case of bashing Conservatives. Both South Hams and West Devon councils are Conservative controlled, but neither is planning on cutting the rate of council tax benefit next year.

Correction: The original version of this post referred to the council policy rather than the Conservative policy. Although agreed by the Tory-led cabinet, in this case the final decision rests with the full council.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Official - Cory broke contract terms and failed to keep proper records

After six weeks of being given half-answers or no answer at all, I've now received confirmation from Cornwall Council of the failure by waste, recycling and street cleaning contractor Cory to abide by their contract. What is even worse is that Cornwall Council seems totally unable to monitor the work they do.

This will be particularly embarrassing for Council Chief Executive Kevin Lavery who wrote a book on out-sourcing services and, as recently as Tuesday, was asking councillors to agree a massive new out-sourcing agreement with another private sector company.

The story is this - Cory took over the contract on April 2nd. We all know that the initial stages of the rubbish and recycling collection service were a complete disaster, but they were also contracted to clean the streets.

There are four categories of street cleaning:
  • town centres which should be cleaned on a daily basis;
  • residential areas of towns which should be visited at least every six weeks and cleaned if needed;
  • rural areas which should be visited twice a year;
  • special areas - mainly the two trunk roads, the A30 and A38.
First the good news. The new way of cleaning town centres is working very well. I don't know anyone who has a bad word to say about this work.

But Launceston residents have been concerned that the rest of the town (which falls into the second category) wasn't being swept or cleaned at all. Many people were convinced that their road hadn't been swept between April 2nd and the end of October. So I asked the council to investigate.

As I said above, this information has taken six weeks to get to me - which is worrying in itself. If Cornwall Council's procedures are so inefficient, how can we properly monitor such a contract? And when it did arrive, it proved that Cory have been failing to do the job we are paying them for. According to the information sent to me:
“Based on information the local manager has to hand, zone 2 areas have been swept 3 times.
On each of these occasions a full sweep of the zone 2’s was not completed as it would have been undertaken on an as required basis. (Those roads below the acceptable standard)
They cannot provide the exact date of each road cleansed as the schedule is not signed and dated (as it should be! this will be immediately rectified through operative training by Cory Management)."
There is then a list of eleven reports of problem areas and the action taken to clean them.

So when Cory were contracted (and paid) to make either four or five visits over the period, they actually only claim to have made three. And even then, there are no records and no evidence that they actually did any cleaning as they are only required to clean if they think the street is below an acceptable standard. And contrary to the contract, the Cory staff haven't kept a list of the streets they say they did clean or the dates of the visits.

So if a resident claims that their street has never been swept, Cornwall Council cannot say they are wrong. In fact, I think they are probably right.

This is a massive failure both by Cory and by the Council. On Tuesday, councillors were asked to agree a massive handover of services to another private sector company. I made it clear that I didn't think we should hand anything over until we could prove that Cornwall Council was capable of being an effective commissioning organisation. At the moment, I don't think the council could commission its way out of a paper bag. With the decision having been taken to handover some services to BT, I'm determined to make the contract work, even if I disagree with it. But it will have to be done a lot better than the Cory contract.

I have written to Kevin Lavery asking him to conduct an urgent review of the Cory contract. I want to know what penalties the contractor will face and what Cornwall Council will do to make sure that local people in Launceston (and elsewhere) get the service they deserve. I also think it would be appropriate if both Mr Lavery and the head of Cory make an apology to the people of Launceston.

And the winner is...

The winner of this month's Love Launceston loyalty card prize draw is Chris Oaten. Chris wins a year of free haircuts courtesy of our friends at Diamond Cutz in Exeter Street.

Chris is pictured with Julie Downing from Diamond Cutz and Jeremy Loft from the Loyalty Card team.

Don't forget, there isn't much time to enter the December draw. The prize is six month's free golf membership at Trethorne Golf Club. And, in case you are doubtful about golf in January, Trethorne have told us that you can start your membership period at any point. The draw closes on December 22nd and all you have to do is complete your loyalty card details, name and contact number on one of the leaflets available in any Love Launceston business.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Good news for bailiffs! Cornwall Tories and Indies back moves to impose new council tax burdens on poorest families

This morning Cornwall Council's Cabinet - made up of six Conservatives and four members of the Independent Party - unanimously backed a scheme which will force some of Cornwall's poorest families to pay up to £938 per year in extra council tax.

During the debate the Leader declared that council tax benefit - the payments they are proposing to cut - was simply
"an easy way for other people to help themselves to our resources".
As I have blogged before, the decision of the government to cut the amount of money available for council tax benefit for working age families is wrong. And the Leader is wrong to characterise recipients as scroungers as more than a third of them are working and many more are carers.

The council has to devise a scheme to pass this cut on. It has two options. One means forcing working age recipients to pay 25% of their council tax bill and to limit the benefit to Band D.

This will, in my view, force many more families into the arms of our foodbanks. It is also likely to force larger families out of areas with higher property prices - a form of social cleansing. And Cornwall Council will have to find a way of squeezing money out of people who simply cannot pay. It is estimated that there will be under-collection of between 15 and 50%. That implies that the bailiffs will be knocking on the doors of at least 4000 additional homes next year. Good business for them, but terrible news for local people.

According to Cornwall Council's own figures, this will increase council tax bills for a single parent on a low income by as much as £938.08 a year.

But Cornwall Council has the money to ensure that poorest families are not hit in this way and that is the alternative option. Just yesterday, councillors agreed to end second home council tax discounts and tighten up on council tax holidays enjoyed by those who can afford to leave homes empty. These changes will not only raise the £4 or £5 million needed to fund council tax benefit as it is at the moment but also means that the council will qualify for an extra £1 million transitional grant for one year - that's a million we wouldn't have under the council's scheme.

The cabinet decision is not the end of the story however as this matter will go to full council in the New Year. Liberal Democrats will be pressing for the alternative scheme which will use additional money paid by those wealthy enough to have more than one home to ensure that poorest families in Cornwall are not facing unreasonable rises in their council tax bills.

Cornish Guardian/West Briton coverage is here.

But there is some good news for Cornwall's leadership

Last year, Cornwall Council's parking budget under-achieved by some £3 million and had to be bailed out twice. The money to make up the shortfall came largely from cutting the amount being spent on road repairs and safety works.

But there is good news for the new administration!

This year they have turned things around so that the car parking budget is projected to be only £2.149 million short of their income target.

At their last meeting, the cabinet made the welcome change of agreeing not to ratchet up parking fees yet further. Hopefully they will soon understand that they can't treat car parks as a cash cow and will lower fees and encourage shoppers back into our town centres. The evidence shows that they will actually bring in more money as a result.

Cllr Kennedy's christmas card from the leader might go missing...

At Cabinet this morning, a public questioner asked if the authority thinks Eunomia is a well qualified organisation to advise the council on alternatives to the incinerator. Eunomia is the expert group commissioned by the anti-incinerator campaigners to present alternatives to the current plan.

In the absence of portfolio holder Lance Kennedy, the Leader read out an answer on his behalf saying that the Council felt it inappropriate to comment on Eunomia's qualifications having never commissioned them.

Except that according to the public questioner, Cornwall Council has indeed commissioned Eunomia in 2010 and Cornwall County Council did so before that in 2002.

This left Cllr Currie looking slightly foolish as he had clearly relied on information from Cllr Kennedy and officers who, if the questioner is right, had got their facts spectacularly wrong.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Just one more thing...

Cornwall Council also formally agreed to scrap the second home council tax discount too...

The end of the elected dictatorship?

Under legislation passed by the Labour Government in 2000, councils had been required to use what is known as the Leader and Cabinet system of governance. Today - using new powers given to it by the coalition - Cornwall Council chose a system which will give more power to ordinary councillors. The new system will take effect from the elections next May.

The downside of the current system is that the Leader is elected for the full term of the council. Once chosen therefore, there are only limited chances to defeat his or her proposals. The Leader can appoint and dismiss who they want on the cabinet and the full council only gets a formal say on the budget once a year. Of course the budget is a huge issue but it can be written in such a way as to allow councillors only to decide the top line figures - not the detail about what it will be spent on.

Today the council agreed a new system which will retain the formal structure of the leader and cabinet but will give enhanced powers to councillors over policy, could lead to the full council having a formal veto over any cabinet decision and will mean that the leader needs to re-elected every year. I think this will be a great improvement but will also require a change in the culture of Cornwall councillors and, dare I say it, officers too.

When voters elect their councillor they expect him or her to be involved in the key decisions. The strong leader model currently in place effectively denied them that - unless their councillor was a cabinet member.

I believe that the new system will involve more councillors in policy formulation in a way that cabinet members cannot ignore.

Council picks slimmest joint venture

After many months of wrangling, Cornwall Council today voted in favour of the slimmest form of joint venture partnership which will see some services and staff handed over to a private company. But it is not yet certain that the move will go ahead as it will rely on more negotiations with BT and health organisations.

Councillors comprehensively voted against the 'full fat' version of the deal which would have seen vast swathes of services - including libraries, one stop shops and other front line services - handed over to BT.

For me, this was the crucial point. Ever since the expanded privatisation project was unveiled earlier this year I have been campaigning to exempt libraries and once stop shops from its scope. There is no money to be made for a private company in running these services and I feared that privatisation would only see a reduction in services. In addition, the chance to put some of Cornwall Council's services into post offices may still be on offer - but without the downside of having to hand over our libraries and library staff to a private company.

Unfortunately for my point of view, councillors also narrowly rejected the option of keeping services in house. The majority of Lib Dems voted for the in-house option and most Conservatives voted against.

That left us with one of a range of intermediate options. The one eventually picked was that involving the least handover of services possible. BT (assuming they are happy to continue with the project) will take over a narrow range of back office functions including IT and payroll. Crucially, this version will also allow the council to be involved in 'tele-care' and 'tele-health' projects which could bring new jobs to Cornwall.

I'm disappointed that the in-house option was defeated but am determined now to do what I can to make any new partnership work as well as possible.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Cory-fail update

I posted on Saturday my frustration about the failure of Cornwall Council's waste contractor - Cory - to send the big street cleaning machine to clear up after Late Night Shopping.

First thing on Saturday morning I called the council only to be told that the call centre couldn't get hold of anyone who could help. As a result, the lone street sweeper had to be joined by local shopkeepers and business-owners who abandoned their businesses to try to get the town looking as good as normal. But even then their abilities were limited as the high pressure washer capabilities of the street machine were needed.

Today I received an email from the council to tell me that someone at Cory decided that they knew better than the people who have organised Late Night Shopping for six plus years. Cory decided that we didn't need a street cleaning machine and so they didn't send one.

I could have understood it if they had got in touch with Sasha - the event organiser - to check whether extra resources were really needed. But they didn't bother to do that. Instead they just decided to ignore the request and not show up.

Stop the Bus Cuts in North Cornwall

I'm joining with North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson and other local Lib Dems to campaign to stop the latest rounds of cuts to bus services in our area.

Last week, Western Greyhound announced a package of changes which include the loss of the 577 service linking Launceston to Tavistock and changes to the 584 service along the North Coast which will hit people living in that area.

Sadly, the company gave people very little notice of the changes and they will have serious consequences. Some people who live in villages along the route rely on these services to get out and about, to see friends and to go shopping. They will find themselves more and more isolated. Others rely on buses to get to and from work. The cut in services and re-timing can make it difficult to use the bus to get to work.

The loss of the Launceston to Tavistock service is an example of Cornwall Council's short-sightedness during the last service review. They insisted that they would only subsidise lifeline services in Cornwall. They failed to recognise that routes that cross the border are often just as vital as those wholly within Cornwall.

The council has history with cutting buses. Lib Dem action stopped them when they tried to end weekend and evening buses. We also forced them to think again when their subsidy cuts would have meant most routes being axed. This time the decision appears to have been taken by Western Greyhound themselves. But we think that Cornwall Council has the position to ask the company to think again and to restore these lifeline routes.

If you back our campaign to save the bus routes - please sign our petition here.

Lib Dems criticise council for over-aggressive council tax review

Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council have criticised the authority for the way that the current review of council tax single person discounts is being carried out. We believe that the firm doing the work - Capita - are being far too aggressive.

A person living on their own - or with no other adults liable to pay council tax - receives a 25% discount on their bills. It is entirely right that the council should be making sure that no one is receiving the discount who is not entitled to do so. But the way they carry out that work needs to be done in a sensible, and sensitive, manner.

Instead, Cornwall Council has employed Capita who are undertaking the work from Bromley in South East London. It's a shame that the council could not either do the work in house or find a Cornish firm to do so. It's thought that the total value of the contract could be around £100,000.

But Capita aren't being paid a flat fee. Their money comes in the form of a bounty for every person they find who is receiving the discount but not entitled to it - a sort of 'no win, no fee' arrangement. The trouble is that this could lead to Capita being over aggressive in their work and potentially reporting people as not being entitled to the discount when they are.

We're also concerned that recipients need to send back a letter confirming their eligibility - including paying for the stamp - and there appears to be no email or telephone option. We believe that, in order to maximise the return, the council should have ensured that replying was made as easy as possible. We want to know what will happen in the case of people who do not reply. Will they automatically lose their discount?

On Friday, Lib Dem group leader Jeremy Rowe and myself made the point to Cornwall's chief executive Kevin Lavery, asking him to make sure that the discount review was handled sensitively. We also asked for him to ensure that Capita would be penalised if they took people off the discount list when they were entitled to receive it.

Credit should also go to my colleague Rob Nolan who has done a lot of work investigating the issue.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Cornwall Council lets down the people of Launceston (again)

I'm sad to say that this morning Cornwall Council let down the people of Launceston, and Launceston shops and businesses, again. After a hugely successful late night shopping event, they failed to turn up as agreed to sweep the streets first thing this morning.

It is inevitable that late night shopping creates a mess. There is litter, discarded food and camel poo. That is why the organisers of the event make sure to contact the Council in advance and arrange for an early morning visit from the street sweeping machine. The same is arranged for the morning after Carnival.

But whilst the machine was there the morning after Carnival, it failed to arrive this morning. The individual street sweeper was there, as always, with his cart and brush - but there is no way that he could cope with the amount of work that is needed after such a busy event.

I was on to the council to try to get them to send the machine but, despite some heroic efforts from the call centre, there was no machine.

Launceston deserves better than this from the council and I will be pushing for an apology.

Late Night Shopping in Launceston

As ever, Late Night Shopping saw Launceston packed with people as well as musicians, dancers, traders... and camels.

Huge thanks to everyone for coming along, but especially to my colleague Sasha Gillard-Loft who has organised the event for six or seven years. She persuaded me to get on a camel this year (I thought they knelt down to let you get on - but apparently not).

Thanks also to all the other volunteers and helpers who make this such a special event.

The Late Night Shopping event is produced entirely by those associated with the town centre shops. One of them - Paul Loft of Gillards Sweet Shop - has posted this on Facebook:

“So there you have it, a great night funded entirely by the Chamber of Commerce members and their supporting sponsors.

Argos, the 99p shop, Pets at Home ... NONE of these businesses contribute to the cost of this event, which exceeds £3,000 to put on. Many of the town's small businesses do not benefit in terms of cash through their till on the night, as most of the spend goes to the additional attractions we bring into the square. But they still contribute.

All we ask in return for putting on the event every Christmas is that you think of us when doing your shopping throughout the year, and remember what a fantastic little town you have in Launceston, with some lovely generous and caring people running some excellent family businesses.

Tweet Bus got it right in one of their Tweets - we need 'Balanced Shopping'

Yes the big boys have their place, but so does your local town centre. And we'd love to see more of you visiting and supporting your town more often. We know we can't expect to see you all every Friday night (I don't think we could cope), but seeing the hundreds of people who filled the town tonight reminded us of just how exciting and vibrant a town centre can be.”

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Picking up where Cornwall Council fails

According to Cornwall Council, there are some streets that don't exist - at least as far as street cleaning and litter picking are concerned.

One such is Blind Hole in Launceston which runs down to the Orchard Centre, home of the youth partnership and other community organisations.

This street isn't classed as town centre and so doesn't get swept every day. But then, it isn't classed as a residential zone two street either (in which case it should get swept every six weeks). According to Cornwall Council's contract with Cory, it doesn't exist at all. Any sweeping or litter picking is done by local residents.

So today, local Lib Dem campaigner Jade Farrington and myself went and swept the street - picking up two bags of broken glass, cigarette ends and general litter.

We have asked the council to make sure that Blind Hole - and any other missed out areas - are added to Cory's list of streets to sweep. Street sweeping is a core service for the council, but it seems far too many areas are being missed.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Litter, waste and street cleaning in Launceston

This evening saw a special meeting of the Launceston Community Network panel on the subject of litter, waste and street cleaning.

There was a good turnout from members of the public and two of the contract management officers from the Council came along to explain the new system and answer questions.

As readers will know, the new waste and recycling contract had a lot of problems at the start. Many people didn't get their bins emptied for more than two months and thousands more were left without recycling containers.

Thankfully, most of those problems have now been sorted - but there is a lot of concern about dog mess, fly-tipping and street cleaning.

The good news is that the town centre is now very clean indeed. There are two people whose job it is to clean it on a daily basis - seven days a week. Everyone at tonight's meeting was complimentary about the job they are doing.

The trouble is that this contrasts markedly with the lack of cleaning elsewhere. Although Cory have been doing a lot of street cleaning in the past two weeks or so, many people at the meeting complained that they hadn't seen their streets cleaned before that since April.

Apart from the very town centre, all the residential streets in Launceston are classed as being in Zone two. These streets should be visited at least every six weeks and cleaned if they need it (and after six weeks, they certainly will do). The trouble is that I do not believe that Cory have been doing that until very recently. I have therefore asked the officers to provide proof that Cory have been cleaning when they should be. If they have not been doing so then I will be asking for Cory to be heavily fined.

But the point was also made that there are many very busy streets - such as Western Road, Tavistock Road, Race Hill and so on - where a six weekly clean is nothing like enough. They might not justify the daily attention of a zone one street, but should certainly be visited on a weekly basis. We have asked the council to look at improving the cleaning regime there.

A further complaint was about Cory staff not cleaning up after themselves as they are meant to. Bottles dropped on the pavement during recycling collections leave shards of glass dangerous to children and pets and damaging to mobility scooters. Communal bins need cleaning every time they are emptied. We asked for better action to make sure that the contractor is doing the job they are being paid for.

The officers have agreed to take these and other points raised tonight away to be fixed. They will be coming back to the annual network meeting in the Town Hall in early February to report back and - hopefully - to be told that things have got better.

In the meantime, if you believe that your street needs cleaning, contact me and I will make sure it happens.

Key Lib Dem wins at the heart of the autumn statement

It's easy to see the Lib Dem influence on today's Autumn Statement from the Chancellor.

The income tax threshold is going up by even more than was previously planned. That means that, from April the first £9440 that you earn will be tax free. It's tantalisingly close to the Lib Dem manifesto pledge of £10,000 by the end of 2015.

The other key wins are:

  • an end to the policy of regional pay - something which the Chancellor proposed last year and Lib Dems battled against. It would hurt areas like Cornwall hardest of all as we have low pay levels already but very high living costs;
  • the scrapping of the planned 3p fuel tax rise which would hit poorer people in areas without good public transport (like North Cornwall) harder than most;
  • the basic state pension will rise by 2.5% whilst tax relief for top earning pensioners will be cut. This means that the well off will be contributing more to help the least well off
  • the A30 will be dualled at Temple. This is a big bottleneck in the summer and puts off many businesses from relocating to Cornwall. The Local Enterprise Partnership thinks it could be worth £100 million to the Cornish economy.

Have your say on new parking charges

Cornwall Council is consulting the public on the new parking charges which will apply in Cornwall Council owned car parks from next spring.

The major change in Launceston will see the abolition of the first hour parking rate. Instead of paying 50p for up to one hour and £1.60 for up to two hours, the two rates will be merged into a single £1 for up to two hour rate.

This was the preferred option of those who came along to our open meeting a few months ago. Of course, the options available all had to be pre-approved by the council and we weren't allowed to suggest lower overall rates.

Officially, the season ticket rate in Launceston will rise from £470 to £500. However, as has been noted before, the £200 trial will continue until the end of July and now includes the Tower Street season ticket bays as well as the Cattle Market. Our aim will be to ensure that this fairer rate is made permanent.

To see all the details and to have your say, go to the Cornwall Council site here.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Planning proposal for Upper Chapel - public exhibition - UPDATED

A developer is looking at the possibility of building 100 or so houses on land to the West of Upper Chapel in Launceston. They are holding an exhibition in the Town Hall tomorrow and the public is invited to come along to have their say.

The consultation runs from 1pm until 7.30pm.

Development on this and neighbouring sites were considered by the framework steering group recently and discounted. The Framework is a planning outline for our town which will ultimately form part of Cornwall's core strategy. The process saw every green field site surrounding the town evaluated to see whether or not it would be possible to build new houses and employment sites there. The area to the West of Upper Chapel was discounted early on because of the problem of highways. Forcing more and more cars down Moorland Road and St Johns Road, or alternatively down St Catherine's Hill or Chapel Hill, was seen as hugely problematic.

Of course, any person or company can apply for planning permission and it would be interesting to see how they think they can solve the highways problems.

UPDATE - This afternoon I have been to see the exhibition. I can't see any attempt to solve the highways problems in the area - indeed, the impression given is that they don't consider that these are real problems. I was also disappointed that one panel of the exhibition makes the claim that the Framework group did not consider a scheme like this as part of our work. The truth is that we did consider just such a scheme and felt it would not work.

Councillors have thirteen options - staff get just two

Full marks to Cllr Andrew Wallis who has spotted that Cornwall Council's staff survey on the potential privatisation of key services contains just two real options.

Staff are asked to rank four choices in order of preference. One is an in-house option. Two more are essentially the same thing (the BT bid and 'out-sourcing') and the final one is 'Undecided'.

So what happened to the thirteen different options that councillors were told were being considered when we had a briefing last week? The full council had demanded that a wide range of possibilities - which should all have been in the mix from the start - should be investigated. Why are staff being offered a choice of just two?

Last week a number of councillors felt that the advocates of the BT bid were trying to railroad the choice into one between BT and no change. The staff survey gives added credence to that fear.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Collecting for Launceston Foodbank

This weekend, Launceston Foodbank are holding a collection at Tesco. They are after dried, canned and non-perishable goods to make up into food parcels to give to people who are facing a crisis.

This afternoon I joined the volunteers for a couple of hours to hand out shopping lists and to collect donations.

Many thanks to the hundreds of people who gave us items from our shopping lists. Every single can or packet will help an individual or family who are facing a really tough time.

Tesco are donating a lot of staff time to help the effort and they are also adding 30% to the total amount of donations received over the weekend. So far, we have collected more than 40 of the green pallets full of food - that's about half a tonne.

Some of the donations were quite incredible. One young boy handed over a packet of sweets from his pocket money whilst another gent gave us a whole trolley-load of stuff.

The volunteers will be there again tomorrow and don't forget that there is a collection basket permanently behind the check-outs in the store.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Why I'm now asking for donations

If you look on the right hand side of this blog, you'll see a new addition to the page. It's a donation button which allows readers to donate via PayPal to support the work of myself and my colleagues in Launceston.

Making a donation is easy - you don't need a PayPal account, just a credit or debit card and about two minutes of your time and there is no minimum.

So why am I asking for donations?

In May next year, every councillor in Cornwall is up for re-election. I want to be in the best position to carry on working for the people of Launceston and of Cornwall. But campaigns cost money. The Lib Dems aren't funded by trades unions or big business. We rely on small amounts from our members and people who think we do a good job.

So if you support what I have been able to achieve in my time as a councillor so far - and if you want me to be able to continue my work alongside my Lib Dem colleagues in Launceston - then please consider making a donation.

Over the past three and a half years as councillors, my colleagues Sasha, Adam and I have achieved a lot for our town:
  • We have saved our local library from the threat of closure
  • We have won the campaign for lower season ticket prices in our car parks and we are campaigning to get fairer pay and display charges
  • We have saved local buses after the council (twice) tried to cut routes in North Cornwall
  • We have got local roads repaired 
  • We have helped hundreds of local people with casework problems
If you are able to support our campaign to carry on this work, please consider making a donation - large or small.

The small print: Donations via this method may only be made by UK citizens on the electoral register or by companies trading in the UK. Donations will be treated in accordance with PPERA and donations over £500 (I wish) will be notified to the Electoral Commission.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Councillors say no to office weddings

Another day - another victory for common sense at Cornwall Council. Today, councillors backed my campaign against holding ceremonies in offices.

In what many saw as a petty move, the Conservatives were proposing to force those who could only afford the cheapest wedding or civil partnership service to hold them in busy registration offices rather than the bespoke ceremony rooms.

Today the communities scrutiny committee looked at these proposals as well as the wider proposal to change registration office hours and to downgrade registration staff. We felt that this was a retrograde step at a time when the council should be doing more to encourage people to come to Cornwall for marriages and civil partnership ceremonies. There were also concerns that the proposals would discriminate against people with disabilities.

I've had a lot of correspondence from registration staff on this issue and they clearly felt that their concerns were not being listened to by management.

I'm happy that the scrutiny committee backed my strong rejection of the proposals and demanded that the people who take the decision (who weren't actually at the meeting today) think again.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

TRAC project (part one) - decision delayed

Cornwall councillors tonight voted to delay a decision on the controversial TRAC project which would introduce a multi-use trail from Polson to Egloskerry.

The section under discussion was, according to the meeting agenda, that from Newport to New Mills. But officers quickly claimed that it was only the off-road section (about half of the Newport to New Mills trail) that was up for discussion as criticism of the on-road sections came from councillors and the town council.

The criticism was because of the perception of danger to trail users because of the plan to make them share road sections with cars and heavy good vehicles to and from the scrapyard.

In the end, committee members were left baffled by the lack of understanding as to what the proposal was for and what the impact on traffic and road safety would be. So they voted to defer discussion until next month.

My own view is that the application is confused and that doesn't help. I support the view of the town council that the massive on-road sections create dangers for pedestrians and other trail users and I want to see the trail taken off-road if at all possible. If it is to go ahead with these on-road sections then I want to see more detail about how often the hedges will be cut and what sort of signage there will be. That detail isn't in the application as it stands and I think that is wrong - we can't afford to take it on trust.

At the end of the day, I want to see the trail happen. But I feel that there is still a chance to take the majority of the trail off-road and that chance should be grabbed.

Lib Dems defeat proposal to force poorest to pay extra hundreds in council tax

Cornwall councillors today opposed a plan by the Tory-led council to cut the amount paid in council tax benefits to some of the poorest families in Cornwall.

The Corporate Resources scrutiny committee was discussing the council's plan of how to replace the current council tax benefit scheme, responsibility for which is being passed to local authorities.

The proposal from the Conservatives was to force non-pensioner households who currently get council tax benefit to pay at least 25% of the bill in future. Council tax benefit is a means tested benefit which is only given to the poorest households in Cornwall. Most people in receipt of this benefit just don't have the means to pay and will simply rack up more and more debt. This would hit poor families but also create additional problems for the council s it sought to get money from people who just don't have any.

The Conservatives also planned to cap council tax benefit at Band D. The effect of this would be to impose an additional burden on larger families - especially those who live in more wealthy areas with higher property prices such as Truro and coastal villages. This would lead to the social cleansing of poorer families from areas with higher property prices. The cabinet member responsible for finance - Fiona Ferguson - proposed creating a special hardship fund to deal with those who could not afford the extra tax. But in my mind this would simply impose yet more paperwork on families who would automatically qualify for the additional support.

So at today's meeting I made the proposal to abandon the cap at Band D and to retain the existing system of council tax benefit. This inevitably means that the money will have to be found from somewhere and I made the suggestion that the extra income coming from new council tax levies on second home owners and empty homes should be used. This is around £4.5 million of new income and Liberal Democrats believe that we should be using it to protect the poorest families from unnecessary hardship.

I'm delighted that the majority of Independents and MK backed my proposal and this now forms the recommendation to Cabinet when putting together their budget.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Wooda Lane Leat - getting it cleared

We were lucky in Launceston that no homes were actually flooded during the recent bad weather. There were lots of very sodden gardens and some houses had a close run thing, but it seems that we escaped the fate of other towns and villages across Cornwall.

One of the main reasons why our town escaped the worst was flood preventions schemes like the leat that runs alongside Wooda Lane, You may well never have seen it. And if you have, you were probably trying to avoid driving (or falling) into it. But it copes with a huge amount of run off from the valley and the nearby hills.

This time it worked well, but residents told me today how close it came to overflowing. The water was only a couple of inches from the top. Part of the reason for this is just how overgrown the leat has become and how much rubbish has been thrown in there.

I've asked the Environment Agency to organise a clearance of the leat to that it can cope even better with future potential flooding. But please don't ever throw rubbish into a leat. Not only is it unsightly, but it starts a damming effect which can cause flooding.

Many thanks to everyone from the council and the Environment Agency and all the other people who helped to save people, possessions and property over the last few days.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Cornwall Privatisation - There are no more than 13 alternatives

Cornwall councillors had a briefing this morning about the privatisation proposal (joint venture, shared services, outsourcing - call it what you will).

As little as a month ago, we were told that there was no realistic alternative to the BT privatisation bid. Now there appear to be no fewer than thirteen different options on the table. Amazing what you can find when you look.

I can't say what is the best option at this stage. We are waiting for the proper write up of all the different alternatives. What I can say is that each offers very different outcomes. There may be bigger potential savings on offer with the BT bid - but there is some scepticism from members about how achievable these are and they involve a lot more loss of control. If people still want their local councillors to be able to affect and change local policy then this will be less possible following privatisation.

Today was all about asking councillors whether the council was considering the right options. By and large, I think they are. I just hope that they look at them all in proper depth and don't try to present us with a half-baked study.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Fiona Ferguson becomes fourth Tory leader in a month

Congratulations to Fiona Ferguson who was this evening voted in as the new leader of the Conservative group on Cornwall Council.

Fiona becomes the fourth leader of Cornwall Conservatives in just over a month. Alec Robertson resigned... Armand Toms was picked to be the Tory nominee for the council leadership but withdrew... Jim Currie was voted in ac council, but not group leader... and now Fiona.

Rumour has it that if Fiona resigns they are lining up Rafa Benitez next

Cornwall Council brings a whole new meaning to 'office romance'

In another mis-guided penny-pinching move, Cornwall Council is trying to save money in the Registration Service. One of the proposals they want to implement is to conduct marriages and civil partnership ceremonies in busy council offices.

So when the bride walks up the aisle (carefully avoiding the photocopier), she may struggle to make herself heard above the noise of ringing phones and Jim from Accounts going through the latest spreadsheets. It's hardly the special day that everybody wants when they get married. I've heard of office romances, but this is ridiculous.

These proposals won't apply to all weddings and civil partnership ceremonies - just to those conducted at the cheapest rate. But as this option is chosen by some of the least well off people in Cornwall, I think it's discriminatory.

But the penny-pinching doesn't end there. Cornwall Council wants to force registration staff onto lower rates of pay and to diminish their status. We have a very well-trained and committed staff, but this will inevitably lead to some of them quitting and a less professional overall service for the people of Cornwall.

I want to halt these proposals and save our valued registration service. I've written to the Leader of the Council asking for him to put a halt to this proposal.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cornwall parking income frozen

Cornwall Council's cabinet has voted today to freeze parking income for the coming year. That's a great result and was against the recommendation of the new cabinet member Bert Biscoe.

Cllr Biscoe and colleagues Mark Kaczmarek, Neil Burden and Lance Kennedy had wanted a rise in income of 3.2% which would have led to minimum 10p rises in charges.

The plea being made by officers and those in favour of a rise was that the council needs the money in order to provide other services. But the council has never made its parking budget - they are just numbers on a piece of paper. Last year the council fell short by £3 million and had to be bailed out twice from other funds resulting in delays to road safety work.

And as the Launceston season ticket trial has proved, you can actually make more money by cutting charges.

So I'm delighted that the freeze should be agreed. Cornwall Council still needs to take a serious look at parking charges. Is it meant to be a business or a service? And should charges be set from Truro or should there be a more local set up which listens to the concerns of local councillors, businesses and residents. This year the council refused even to come to Launceston to a meeting set up to discuss this issue locally.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Congratulations Councillor Ashley

Congratulations to new Launceston town councillor Ashley Crapp who was tonight co-opted onto the council. It was a close result with Ashley receiving seven votes and Leighton Penhale six votes. James Rea also put his name forward for the position.
Commiserations to Leighton who also stood for the last town council vacancy where he lost out by just three votes. He's getting closer to victory and my hope is that he is successful in his next attempt - whether a co-option or election.

Hospital chiefs get a light grilling from town council

Representatives from Peninsula Community Health attended tonight's meeting of Launceston Town Council to update members on the situation at Launceston Hospital.
It wasn't quite to full roasting that PCH got at the recent scrutiny committee but was at least a light grilling. Some members, including Graeme Facks-Martin, said that they were not satisfied with the explanations given.
One significant change since the scrutiny meeting is the number of beds currently closed. At the time of the scrutiny meeting it was said that seven were out of commission. Now that number has risen to ten.
A second change from the scrutiny session is the hoped for date for re-opening the beds. Then it was hoped that they might be back open by the end of the year or early January. Now it appears that PCH wants to get some of the beds open by mid or end of January, but not all of them. The PCH reps were invited to come back to the council and report again if the beds were not fully open by February.
From my own point of view, I'm still dubious about the ability of PCH as an organisation to successfully manage our community hospitals. All we can hope is that this is enough of a shot across the bows to elicit real change in that organisation.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Roger Harding's parking campaign

Fellow blogger Rob Simmons has posted about a leaflet (see left, click on the image for a bigger view) being put out by the Tories in the St Ives constituency. The problem with the leaflet is that it argues against the very policies that they are implementing in power.

One section says:

 "Cllr Harding has long argued that cheaper short-stay car park charges are fairer and help boost the local economy. Roger continues the campaign to see further measures taken to reduce the cost of parking..."

Obviously Roger will have taken every opportunity to press his case for a reduction in parking charges, won't he? So how many meetings of the Parking Policy Panel of Cornwall Council has he turned up to out of 23 since the authority came into being in 2009?


On December 14th 2010.

Launceston Hospital beds 'hope to be back open by the end of the year or early next'

This morning, councillors got the chance to hear from and quiz the boss of Peninsula Community Health - the company that runs cottage hospitals in Cornwall including Launceston Hospital. There has been a lot of concern at the number of bed closures in these hospitals, including 7 of the 20 beds in Launceston.

Although some of the closures have been due to refurbishment, most are down to lack of staff and problems recruiting new staff. In Launceston, much of the problem was because staff were borrowed from Stratton Hospital while that was being refurbished and, when it re-opened the staff went back forcing bed closures in Launceston.

What we were told by Kevin Baber, the Chief Exec of PCH, is that they are recruiting staff but the process takes time. He says he hopes to have some of the closed beds at Launceston re-opened by the end of the year or early in 2013.

To be honest, I was not impressed by the explanations given and hardly comforted by the lack of a firm plan for re-opening these beds. I appreciate that you cannot hold on to staff forever, but the turnover rate of 12% per year seems extraordinarily high and staff I talked to complain of very low morale. And who can blame them when the same problems afflict our cottage hospitals year after year.

Despite the bed closures, Mr Baber told councillors that his organisation was coming close to delivering on their contracted targets. My complaint is that the NHS is far too concerned with ticking boxes on contracts. I think the people of Cornwall expect cottage hospitals to have all their beds open the whole time and wouldn't be impressed with statistics that showed that they were 'only' failing to meet targets by around 5%.

I was moved to ask whether the current PCH set up is truly fit for purpose. What's clear is that they need to do a lot more to reassure patients and other residents in Cornwall that they are able to provide the comprehensive service that we all expect.

Lib Dems welcome Cornwall proposal to end second home council tax discount

Cornwall's Liberal Democrats have welcomed a proposal by the authority to end the council tax discount for second homes and for empty properties. The proposals had been demanded by the Lib Dem group for many years and were finally made possible by legislation from the Liberal Democrats in Government.
My colleague, Lib Dem group leader Jeremy Rowe, said:
"The second home council tax discount is an anathema which harms local services. I'm delighted that the Lib Dems in government have made the change that allows councils to charge full council tax on second homes and equally delighted that Cornwall is proposing to implement the change at the first opportunity.
"The authority is also proposing that empty homes will be exempt from council tax only for the first month. This change is aimed at encouraging owners not to leave homes empty when there are more than 25,000 families on the housing waiting list. Indeed, the council is going further and proposing a penalty premium of an extra 50% on empty properties left vacant for more than 2 years. The council has a number of grant programmes in place to help the owners of empty properties bring them back into use, so there should be no excuse.
"In addition a loophole that allowed homeowners to escape council tax if they could show that a house was undergoing major repairs is being closed and these will only get a 50% discount for a single year and then have to pay full council tax thereafter.
"Cornwall's Liberal Democrats have been calling for these changes for many years. I'm delighted that the council has agreed to act. We need to protect local services from cuts as much as possible and it is right that second home owners and those who own empty homes should be asked to do their bit."

Cornwall Council's parking charges displays utter contempt for motorists, localism and reality (yet again)

Next week, Cornwall's cabinet will debate the proposed parking charges for next year. Their draft shows utter contempt for motorists, for localism and for reality. But as this is the third year with such problems I suppose we should be used to them by now.

Over the course of the last few months, the parking panel has traveled to all the different parts of Cornwall to ask about what charges local people would like to see. There was the caveat that they wanted the new charges to raise at least as much as the current ones. We could dispute the elasticity of demand for such a charging scale, but at least they listened.

So various ideas were proposed and costed and, although not perfect, they are getting gradually better.

But the final proposals don't suggest the acceptance of these charges. They want to add an additional 3.2% for inflation. As the minimum increase is 10p, it means that some charges will be increased by far more than inflation.

The additional increase wasn't suggested to local councillors who may well have come to very different conclusions if they had known. So it's contempt for any concept of localism. But what should we expect from a department which high-handedly refused to attend a local meeting to discuss parking charges in Launceston despite it being a constitutional requirement that they do so?

It also shows contempt for reality. This is exactly the same as happened last year. Officers saw a shortfall in the budget and decided to try to make it up by increasing costs. What happened instead was they created an even bigger funding gap and had to be bailed out twice in a single year. The truth is that if parking charges are too high then drivers simply won't use Cornwall Council car parks.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the trial £200 season ticket deal in Launceston ended on October 31st. It was a success for local drivers - who got a fair deal - for local residents - who got commuters out of their streets - and for Cornwall Council - who made more money than they were doing from the high priced tickets. But despite these successes, the price has gone back up to £470. I've been asking the council to make the deal permanent, but I can't get an answer and there is nothing on the subject in the paper going to Cabinet.

The new Cabinet Member for Parking, Bert Biscoe, came to Launceston to discuss charges with myself and Sasha Gillard-Loft last week. When he left I got the impression that he understood where we were coming from. However this paper shows that his officers still don't get it and I very much hope he can get a grip on his department soon.

Liberal Democrats will institute a fair deal for drivers and for town centres. We'll cut parking charges back to sensible levels and we are confident that this will bring shoppers back to our towns. Parking should be a service, not a business.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Is vote fraud a price Cameron is happy to pay?

One of the practices that has risen up the news agenda in recent years has been vote fraud. The level of ballot manipulation has risen - partly due to changes to make it easier to vote by post - and politicians and commentators have also started to take more notice of the problem that has always existed.

For all that some people would have you believe that we live in a perfect system, there has always been electoral fraud in the UK and the law is frequently changed to try to stamp it out. We have adopted the secret ballot and abolished rotten boroughs. We have also tried to stamp out intimidation and group voting.

But one issue that has become more prevalent has been fraud involving postal votes. In the past, a postal vote was only issued for cause - in other words if an elector was ill or away from home on polling day. Then the Labour government introduced postal voting on demand. I think they did so for good reason - turnout was falling and they were trying to make it easier to vote.

But taking ballot papers out of the supervision of election officials increases the risk of fraud. And there were cases of significant fraud taking place. The Birmingham case (where the judge described the system as being like a banana republic) was the most high profile, but there were many others.

One way to combat fraud of this type (and other frauds too) is to introduce individual voter registration. Instead of a 'head of household' filling in a voter registration form on behalf of the whole household, each elector will have to fill in their own form. This allows for personal identifier - signatures or dates of birth or NI numbers - to be collected. Then, when a person applied for a postal vote, officials can check to ensure it is really the voter themself making the application. We already check that the person who returns the ballot paper is the person who applied for it - but that doesn't help if it was fraud in both cases.

This is a significant step in the right direction for UK democracy. But it is all at risk because David Cameron won't let the Bill be debated in the House of Lords. It is a government bill which has already been debated in the Commons and passed two Lords hurdles - so why the problem?

The issue is that Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard has tabled an amendment to rule out boundary changes until 2018. Cameron is worried that this amendment will be passed and he will lose any chance of the Conservatives' 20 seat bonus that they expect from the boundary review (the review that will also introduce a Devonwall seat, by the way).

Cameron has already tried a 'cash for constituencies' deal with the Lib Dems by offering party funding reform in return for the new seats. But Nick Clegg has refused to play ball. Now he is apparently trying to cobble a deal together with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and DUP.

In the meantime, whilst Cameron tries his best to get his new seats, he is delaying legislation that will help to prevent vote fraud. According to reports by Paul Waugh from this morning's Number 10 lobby briefing, the Prime Minister might even be trying to declare the bill to be a financial one in order to assert the right of the Commons to pass it without Lords interference. Sounds to me like the nationalists have told him where he can stick his deal.

We have a winner!

The winner of the first Launceston Loyalty Card prize draw is.....

(drum roll)

Jan Broom of Launceston.

Congratulations to Jan who picked up her prize - a surround sound stereo system kindly donated by Hockridge and Stacey - this morning.

In the photo are Karl Hockridge and Jan Broom with myself and Jeremy Loft of the Love Launceston Loyalty Card scheme.

The next prize draw is for a year's worth of free hair cuts, courtesy of Diamond Cutz.

Friday, 9 November 2012

And the winner is...

I've just made the draw for the winner of the first Launceston Loyalty Card prize draw.

More than 120 people entered by posting the cut out coupon from the October loyalty card leaflet in one of the participating businesses. The competition was organised by Paul and Jeremy Loft from Gillard's Sweet Shop where the draw took place.

The winner will receive their prize - a surround sound stereo system kindly donated by Hockridge and Stacey Appliance Centre - on Monday. We'll announce the name (and post a picture) then.

The next prize draw will be in December as part of the bumper Christmas loyalty card promotion.

Police elections - how to vote

One thing that will be new to almost everyone who turns out to vote in the Police Commissioner elections next Thursday is the voting system. The Supplementary Vote (SV) system gives you a chance to make two choices.

The ballot paper has two columns - for a first choice and a second choice. In each case you mark your preference with an X.

So long as you mark a first choice, your vote will count. But you also have the chance to say who your second preference is with another X. Obviously if you cast it for the same candidate as your first preference then it won't count - but your first preference will still be valid.

What does this mean in practice? In order to win, a candidate needs to have a majority (ie over half) of the first preference votes. If no one has this majority then the top two vote-getters go through to the second round. All the ballot papers cast for the remaining candidates are examined and if the second preferences are cast for one of the top two then these votes are transferred to the second choice. The second choice votes are added to the first and the person with the most votes wins.

Although this gives voters a little more voting power, it's a far from perfect system. The Alternative Vote (AV) system rejected by voters in the referendum last year is far better.

What's wrong with SV? Well for a start, voters have to guess who will make it through to the top two if they want to make sure that their vote will count. If neither of their preferences is for one of the top two then their vote is, effectively, wasted. And with ten candidates on the ballot in Devon and Cornwall for an entirely new position with no voting history, this might be a challenge even for ardent political geeks like me.

For an example from history, look at the first London Mayoral election back in 2000. In that election, the official Labour candidate failed to make the top two. So a voter who chose a fringe candidate as their first choice and put Labour second might have thought they were voting with their heart first and head second. But in the end neither vote counted.

In my view the ideal voting system should not involve tactical voting or guesswork of this sort.

And there is no guarantee that the ultimate winner will secure more than half the votes cast. In most SV elections in the UK (the system has previously been used for a number of mayoral elections in 12 towns and cities), comparatively few people have ended up casting a second preference vote that transfers. That's not to say the second preference votes that do transfer don't matter - in many cases they have been crucial. But a combination of lack of understanding of the system and poor guesswork leaves most voters out in the cold.

Next Thursday electors should go out and cast their first preference for the candidate they think will do the best job as Police Commissioner. If they truly want their second preference to have a chance of counting, then they should use this for someone they think will end up being in the top two. Historically, local elections in Devon and Cornwall have been between the Lib Dems and Conservatives across most of the patch and between Labour and Conservatives in the cities. To be honest, a voter not including one of those three as either their first or second preference is unlikely to see their vote count. And even I as a member of one of those parties thinks that is wrong.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Police Elections - Home Office foul up means people don't know who they are voting for

Just about the only thing that's been said about the Police and Crime Commissioner election is how little people know about it.

The poll takes place next Thursday and, here in Devon and Cornwall there are ten candidates standing. Of these, four represent political parties and six describe themselves as independents.

Of course, I'm biased. I think that the Lib Dem candidate Brian Blake is the best qualified for the job. He's an ex copper and will bring a wealth of practical experience to the role.

But people will want to make their own mind up, so how can they do so?

Radio Cornwall have done a grand job - organising two hustings events which are being broadcast today. But with such a vast area covered by the election, the chances of getting leaflets through your door - particularly from the independents - is remote. Many people will go online - and all the candidates have websites - but what it you have no internet access?

The Home Office have set up a hotline with the number advertised on the information booklet that has been sent to every household. You are supposed to be able to call that number and be sent a print out of the candidate statements. Except that those who have tried this have yet to receive anything.

I've had a number of calls from local residents with postal votes who have asked for this information but not received it. They are getting very anxious about whether they will be able to vote at all if they don't feel confident that they know something about the candidates.

I've asked the council to look at this situation as a matter of urgency. Cornwall's Chief Executive, Kevin Lavery, took the role of chief returning officer over the objections of councillors. In doing so, he took on partial responsibility for making sure that people understand how they vote. Given the failure of the Home Office to get information out, I believe it falls on Mr Lavery to take action. It's not his fault that the Home Office have failed - but I think he should be picking up the pieces.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Cabinet backs 48,500 homes target

By four votes to three, Cornwall Council's new cabinet today backed the controversial 48,500 target for the number of new homes to be built in Cornwall over the next twenty years. This recommendation now moves to the full council as part of the draft local plan.

As I've blogged before, I'm not hung up about the numbers per se. But I want to see a greater emphasis on increasing the proportion of affordable homes - particularly social rented homes and new council housing - that are built as part of any new development. The new plan sets a target of just 30% for Launceston and many other towns and I feel that is too low.

I also spoke up for allowing local communities to do more to set their own targets for new development. So long as they can show how they can cope with the additional demands from those on the housing register and so on, I think that our starting point should be to let local communities decide. It appears that the Cabinet has moved towards this idea in Truro - altering the 'target' number downwards to meet the local figure. So why not elsewhere?

I got a comment from one Launceston resident who asks where the schools, medical facilities, jobs and other infrastructure will come from. I agree. I complained during today's meeting that this looks too much like a plan just for houses and that it doesn't address the other needs that communities have. Apparently that information is to come.

What Launceston has said is that we are prepared to have new housing, but only in places (mainly south and east of the Link Road) where they will not place undue demands on our road network and only if they are developed in conjunction with new employment opportunities and all the services and infrastructure that we also need. Thankfully, we got the reassurance from officers that our locally developed framework document would be given planning weight so that it will hold up against inappropriate proposals for development.

The full council debate will be very close.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cornwall's lower affordable homes target based on short-term thinking - UPDATED

Among all the other big decisions being taken by Cornwall Council at the moment, the issue of the new local plan (previously known as the core strategy) is one of the biggest. It is being discussed by the Cabinet next Wednesday and will be decided by all 123 councillors at the December council meeting.

The headlines will focus on the 49,000 target for the number of new homes being proposed for Cornwall over the 20 year lifetime of the plan.

One way in which this number could be brought down is through a better target for the proportion of affordable housing being provided by developers. With more than 25,000 families on the housing register, we need every one that we can get. (We should also be making better use of our powers to encourage empty homes to be brought back into use.)

The current local plan proposal is for a mere 30% affordable housing target for Launceston and most of Cornwall. This is a huge drop from the previously agreed figure of 50%. I have questioned this and been told that it is based on what we can expect to get in the current property market. To my mind that's appallingly short-term thinking. Although the property market is currently very depressed and we might have to accept 30%, no one seriously thinks that the market will not recover and we should be setting the figure for the good times (knowing we can offer accept lower) rather than the bad (as there is no provision for an increase).

I'll blog later about a couple of other key failings I think exist in the draft plan.

UPDATE - I've had it clarified that the affordable housing percentages can be altered as a result of changes in the economy and that the plan as a whole can be reviewed on a five yearly basis. Obviously that's a relief of sorts, but I remain convinced that we are planning on the basis of bad times rather than setting more ambitious targets and being prepared to compromise.

A courageous decision by someone on the fourth floor...

I've just received the following email from officers at Cornwall Council:
In consultation with the Chairman, the Council meeting has been moved from 4 December to 11 December 2012 to enable a full and informed debate on the Governance Review and Strategic Partnership for Support Services. 
And so it seems that someone on the fourth floor is determined to press ahead with yet another attempt to get councillors to agree to shared services.

To recap: At the September meeting, councillors voted against shared services/privatisation. The (now ex-) Leader decided to press ahead nonetheless.

Last month (having sacked the Leader) we debated the issue again and put the matter on hold pending a full investigation into other alternatives including an employee own mutual, a shared services partnership with other public sector bodies but excluding a private company and a private-public tie up to bid for contracts outside Cornwall.

I would have thought that all those studies would have taken quite a bit of time and effort and would have fully used up the three months that BT have given the council to decide on their bid. But someone seems confident that councillors will be in a position to decide the issue in pretty short order.

All I can say is that it is a pretty big risk to take if councillors get it into their heads that the alternatives have not been exhaustively considered.

A Question of Balance

This post may seem a bit nerdy, but it's nerdiness with a purpose.

With the appointment of Padstow councillor Steve Rushworth to the Cornwall Council cabinet, a place has opened up on the Strategic Planning Committee - cabinet members are not allowed to sit on planning. It's interesting to see who might be chosen by the Conservative group to replace him.

Ideally, the membership of the committee should reflect Cornwall as a whole. There is a rule to enforce political balance and that means that there are eight Conservatives, six Lib Dems, six Independents and one Mebyon Kernow member on the 21 person committee. There is no formal rule about geographical spread, but you would hope that there would be a rough balance.

This is where the current membership falls down.

There are currently just two members from the St Ives constituency (one Lib Dem and one Independent). This compares with five from Camborne, Redruth and Hayle (three Cons, one Mk and on LD), four from Truro and Falmouth (three Indies and one LD), four from St Austell and Newquay (one LD, one Con and two Indies), three from North Cornwall (one Con and two LDs) and two (both Cons) from South East Cornwall.

So you would think that, to create a fairer geographical balance, the Conservatives ought to pick a member from St Ives constituency or South East Cornwall.

But no, the name in the frame (I hear) is another member from Truro and Falmouth. And, to make matters even more unbalanced, it is another member from the Falmouth/Penryn community. If so, that would mean that there would be four Falmouth or Penryn members on the one committee - hugely disproportionate.

Members of the strategic planning committee, as with members of other quasi-judicial panels, have to judge the applications that come before them on the basis of planning policy and planning law. Party political considerations should never come into it and neither should geographical. I'm sure that every member would claim that they don't. But it doesn't look good to see an already unbalanced committee becoming even more so.