Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Devonwall boundary review - the next stage approaches

Today the Boundary Commission will be making their announcement about the next stage in the process that is leading inexorably towards a cross-border 'Devonwall' parliamentary constituency.

The second formal consultation stage will take place over the four weeks from March 6th until April 3rd. This is the stage at which people can read what others contributed during the first consultation stage and comment on them. In essence, it's the chance to rebut and argue with those who you disagree with.

Back in the autumn the first consultation stage saw thousands of individuals, organisations (including Cornwall Council) and political parties make their views known in written form and at public hearings.

After this second stage, the Boundary Commission will be considering everything they have heard and deciding whether to stick with their original plans or change them. If they opt for change then there will be a further eight week consultation period.

After that (assuming there will be some changes) they must publish their final proposals by the 1st of October 2013 and Parliament will vote on the proposals that month.

Lib Dems promote debate on second home council tax premium in Parliament

Liberal Democrat MPs are promoting a debate in Parliament about the prospect of charging a council tax premium on second homes.

The debate is being put forward by Mid Dorset and North Poole MP Annette Brooke who has written about it on Lib Dem Voice. It is supported by, among others, St Austell and Newquay MP Stephen Gilbert.

The concept of charging a premium was first raised by Cornwall Council Director Tom Flanagan during an appearance before a Parliamentary select committee last year. Although it's not formal council policy, it is certainly an issue worth considering in an area where there are large numbers of second homes and large waiting lists for council housing.

Get Active Cornwall

There's a new website produced by Cornwall Sports Partnership which helps people to find local sports and activity clubs and it's well worth a look.

The Get Active Cornwall site lists hundreds of local activities and, whilst there are some obvious clubs still missing, it's well on the way to becoming a first stop resource for anyone who wants to try something new.

One small caveat - the site relies on the information provided to it by the clubs so a few are listed by the addresses of their club officers rather than the actual club location - but hopefully these will be corrected soon and they shouldn't detract from what is a great resource.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

What councillors can do

This story is about the good that local councillors can do. The story is about Amy Kitcher, a Lib Dem councillor from Merthyr in South Wales and the help she was able to get for a former serviceman in her ward who found himself living in a bare flat with nothing other than a sofa and thin blanket and £63 a week to live on.

The ex-soldier - Paul Thomas - was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and was finding it very tough to make any progress but thanks to the local community has been able to get the essentials of life and to set up a charity for other service leavers in Wales.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Good News - Adoption of Kensey Valley Meadow starts

Ever since I was elected two and a half years ago, I have been trying to secure the adoption by Cornwall Council of the roads and open spaces of the Kensey Valley Meadow development. Adoption means that local residents receive the full range of council support and services.

Now, finally, the adoption of the first phases of the estate has happened.

This has been a hugely long and complex road with any number of deadlines set and then broken. I don't believe that local residents have been well served by either the developer - Elan Homes - or the council which allowed Elan to get away with breaking its promises.

The adoption to date only covers the highways on the top end of the estate. The lower part of the estate has now entered a one year 'maintenance period' after which it should be adopted. The open spaces will also be adopted in about a year.

I'm very glad for local residents and proud of what the new residents association and I have managed to achieve.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Launceston's Annual Debate

Last night saw Launceston's annual debate at the Town Hall. More than 70 people came to discuss issues of interest to our town and the surrounding villages.

We had invited Graeme Hicks, the Cabinet Member for Highways and Transportation, to come along with Tim Wood the Assistant Head of the Council's Transportation Service because of the keen interest in buses, roads and parking. Many thanks to Graeme and Tim for coming.

The first key issue was buses. Graeme was able to tell the audience that the decision had been taken to abandon planned cuts and the existing network will be safe for the next two years. The questions he received included:

  • concern about the lack of routes to Bodmin, Truro and beyond;
  • asking for the town bus service to be extended to properly include Stourscombe and Kensey Velley Meadow;
  • concern about what will happen in two years time;
  • anger at the decision by the council to take a Government grant intended for community bus services and use it for other services

We then moved onto the issue of parking and two key themes came up:

  • the high cost of season tickets which is forcing many business owners, residents and workers to abandon car parks and use the streets or private areas
  • the hourly charges which are hitting town centre businesses

Finally we moved onto the issue of streets and highways and there was concern about:

  • parking on zigzag lines
  • 20mph limits outside schools
  • the lack of investment in Launceston's roads for many years

After Graeme and Tim had left we discussed the core strategy and town framework. These are important consultations on the issue of development in Launceston and across Cornwall over the next 20 years. I've covered the key issues here.

After two years in the chair of the Community Network, for the coming year that role will be taken by my colleague Adam Paynter who represents Launceston North on Cornwall Council.

Hopefully there will be a big report in next week's Cornish and Devon Post on the meeting.

Cornish Post Offices saved from further closures by the Liberal Democrats

The future of Post Offices in Cornwall has been secured by Liberal Democrat Business Minister, Ed Davey.

After ending Labour’s Post Office closure programme, which saw more than 7100 Post Offices disappear in their 13 years in office, Ed Davey has announced that a ten-year deal between the Post Office and the Royal Mail has been reached. The deal gives additional certainty to subpostmasters across the UK and covers the full range of Royal Mail products available at post offices such as first and second class post, parcels, air mail, recorded and special deliveries. Before Labour came to power, the Conservatives had a closure programme of their own and many thousands of branches were closed under their rule.

The deal adds to other recent progress for the Post Office, with extra Government cash kicking in, new national and local government contracts won, successful piloting of new models to transform many local post offices and improvements in financial services offered.

Labour left Royal Mail in a terrible mess and it is Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government who have finally put Royal Mail and the Post Office on a secure footing that mean that we will never see a repeat of the devastating closures that happened under the last government such as Newport in Launceston.

Local MP Dan Rogerson said:

"Post Offices are a vital part of our communities and are the lynchpin of our towns and villages. I’ve been campaigning with residents over the last few years to keep local post offices open and to re-instate branches such as the newly re-opened post office in Port Isaac."

“More than 20 million people visit a Post Office every week to manage their finances, renew passports for holidays or to send letters to loved ones, and hundreds of thousands of pensioners rely on them every day for their pensions.”

Commenting further, Business Minister Ed Davey MP said:

“A year ago I set out a radical plan to transform Post Office’s future, with £1.34bn of Government support and investment but without any closure programmes. Since then the Post Office has made good progress to become more competitive, building on its strengths.

“While it will take several years to turn round the Post Office’s finances, it’s increasingly clear the reforms are beginning to work. The 10-year deal struck between Royal Mail and the Post Office will give subpostmasters and others greater confidence. The signs are extremely encouraging for the future of the Post Office.”

Under the Labour Government, Post Office numbers fell by more than 7100, or 38%. In March 2010, there were 11,905 post offices in the UK. Post Office Ltd remains in 100% public ownership. A new Board has been appointed to oversee the Post Office as an independent business with certainty about its future.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Nick Clegg makes the case for lower taxes for lower paid

This morning Nick Clegg is urging the Government to go further and faster in raising the threshold at which people start to pay income tax.

One of the key demands made by the Liberal Democrats when we entered the coalition was that the tax threshold should be raised. Our manifesto commitment was that no one should pay income tax on the first £10,000 that they earned. This was accepted by the Conservatives and is being instituted in stages with the first £1000 rise happening last year and another £630 rise planned for this April.

In today's speech, Nick Clegg says:

"Today I want to make clear that I want the coalition to go further and faster in delivering the full £10,000 allowance, because the pressure on family finances is reaching boiling point. These families have seen their earnings in relative decline for a decade, compared to those at the top. That has accelerated since 2008, with lower real wages and fewer hours at work."

The Lib Dem demand is for lower and middle earners to be as higher priority than the super rich - which is why the Lib Dems have vetoed any suggestion of abolishing the 50p rate for top earners and have ensured that the tax on bank profits is enforced.

That concern for tax cuts targeted at the lower paid is also why the Lib Dems in Cornwall proposed the council tax freeze for the coming year.

Why Twitter is good (and banning it is bad) - UPDATED

Following on from yesterday's rumpus, it's important to consider why councillors, the press and public should have the right to use twitter during council meetings. I think there are three core reasons - it can help debate, it's an issue of free speech and it engages the public in what happens in their name.

The first of these reasons was, ironically, shown earlier in yesterday's Cabinet meeting - before Cllr Robertson arrived. An item on the agenda concerned solar farms and the council's desire to invest the remaining £10m of their planned green energy pot into schemes that would both cut carbon emissions and save money. This was a scheme started by the former Lib Dem county council and carried on by Cllr German and the current cabinet with our support. It was halted by the Government's decision to cut the feed in tariff (ie the amount paid to green electricity producers) and the paper before cabinet looked at what we could do in the light of that news.

But at the very start of the meeting I saw the news via Twitter that the Government had lost its appeal against the decision that their ending of the higher feed in tariff was unlawful. A new cut off date was now set and this is five weeks away. This gives the Council a new window to invest in schemes.

This news changes the nature of the debate. Had we not known about it then the Cabinet discussion would have been a waste of time as it was based on the wrong, out of date facts. So twitter saved the council time and money.

The second reason that twitter is a good thing is an issue of free speech. When a council decides to suspend the right to comment because it thinks that some of the comments being made are 'inappropriate' we are entering very dangerous territory. Remember that this ban, as stated at the time by the Leader, applied to the public and press as well as to opposition councillors.

Before the Leader announced the ban, he read out a few tweets from earlier in the meeting. The two of mine that he chose to read concerned the fact that he and two colleagues had chosen to meet with a journalist from a local government magazine that has shortlisted Cornwall Council for five awards rather than attend cabinet. I'm delighted that Cornwall is being recognised, but I questioned the Leader's priorities in this instance.

The absence of the Leader and Cllrs Ridgers and Toms was highlighted by the pretty shoddy treatment of three public questioners who had come to ask about plans for transport for people with disabilities. In Cllr Toms absence (and that of any senior officer from his department) it was left to Cllr Rule to read a prepared answer. No follow-up questions could be heard and the questioners left very disappointed. Cabinet Member Cllr Burden called their treatment 'disgraceful'. (Cllr Toms subsequently apologised to the questioners).

It was apparently ok for Cllr Burden to use the word 'disgraceful' in the meeting (and presumably on the webcast) but any tweets by opposition members on the subject led to an instant ban.

So if 'inappropriate' tweets are to be banned, who is to make the decision? Will the Leader be sitting as Censor-in-Chief during meetings or will there simply be a blanket prohibition of any dissent? Are we entering the time of Kim Jong Alec?

And then there is the issue of encouraging political debate.

There are six different political groupings within the Council and, whilst we will agree on a lot of things, there are fundamental issues of policy over which we disagree. The Cabinet is a committee made up of just ten members from two of those groups and, whilst other councillors can attend and are usually allowed a brief chance to contribute to debates, we do not have the same rights as Cabinet members. So twitter (and blogs) are the way that different opinions can be put forward.

I don't seriously believe that anyone takes what opposition councillors tweet as being the policy of Cornwall Council and it is quite clear that other opinions are available. It is also the case that each councillor is legally responsible for what they say, whether in person or on-line. It is not an issue for the council unless the individual purports to speak on behalf of the authority. A large number of people follow the council's webcast and read the comments being posted on it. Many of these are re-posted by council officers on Cornwall's own website. So people can hear what the cabinet are saying and see what others think at the same time. I think that's a pretty healthy state of affairs, but it appears Cllr Robertson would like only a single viewpoint to emerge.

I understand that some will say that councillors should not be using twitter during meetings because they should be concentrating on the debate. I think it is a matter for each councillor to judge to what extent they can multi-task. In the case of yesterday's Cabinet meeting that decision is pretty easy. As we are not members of the Cabinet and have no vote, we cannot be distracted from our duties. But there were members of the Cabinet who were tweeting and sending emails and even one who was resting his eyes for a period but still felt able to vote on the issues at hand.

In my case, I have found it very easy to follow and participate in a debate whilst also having twitter open. I'd draw the line if I was in the chair or if it was a quasi-judicial committee such as licensing or planning, but with tweeting allowed from a court room and in Parliament, why not Cornwall Council?

UPDATE - Steve Double has commented on this story to the BBC and (shock, horror) I couldn't agree more with what he is quoted as saying.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Council Leader orders twitter 'ban' during meetings

I don't know what pushed Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson over the edge today, but he turned what should have been a good news day into one where he will get no end of bad press.

The reason was his attempt to institute a twitter ban during the Cabinet meeting.

After being absent for the first part of the meeting, Cllr Robertson arrived and proceeded to read some of the tweets that had been posted by Cllr Jeremy Rowe and myself. He then claimed that the council's new broadcast policy meant that he had the power to ban the use of twitter during meetings and said that he was doing so, banning the public and media as well as councillors.

As Western Morning News Deputy News Editor Scott Harrison tweeted:
Sad thing about meeting's many good points is they are now lost to story about new Twitter ban. Blame Alec.
Indeed. There were many excellent decisions taken during the meeting, including on buses and the culture white paper. But my twitter timeline and, indeed the Council's own webcast page, were then dominated by discussion of the Twitter 'ban'. Just as former Radio One DJ Mike Read attempt to ban the Frankie Goes To Hollywood song Relax spectacularly backfired, so I think this will too.

I'm certain that Cllr Robertson has got it wrong in terms of the constitution. He claimed to be invoking the new broadcasting policy which was designed to open up council meetings to media filming. Instead, he claimed that the new rules prohibit tweeting without express prior consent. I have no doubt that the legal officer will force Cllr Robertson to back down.

But what does it say about the fabled culture of 'openness and transparency' that Cllr Robertson talks about the whole time? Just look at the response provoked:

  • @PenzanceSeafront tweeted "Tweets from CC meetings by cllrs are informed & interactive summaries of what happens."
  • WMN writer Graeme Demianyk tweeted "Good old @CornwallCouncil inching toward another PR disaster by ban on Twitter at County Hall."
  • And @APenzanceBoy said "It's the best way we have to keep up to date with what's going on #keepupthegoodwork"
And that's the point of why some of us tweet during debates. We don't pretend to hold the only acceptable point of view - other opinions are available. But we do want to put our view across for those who want to read them.

Of course the media have been asking Cornwall Council for the reasons for this ban. The official response:

"Cornwall Council has not banned the use of social media such as Twitter from its meetings.

The Council is fully committed to openness, transparency and engagement including via social media platforms such as Twitter.

In the case of today’s meeting, the Leader was very concerned about the inappropriate nature of some of the tweets posted by Members and their potential impact on the reputation of the Council. He expressed these views during the meeting and instructed Members to refrain from making these inappropriate comments.

Today’s meeting of the Cabinet, as with all meetings of the full council, the Cabinet and strategic planning was webcast, not only on the Council’s website, but also via local broadcast media. This demonstrates our ongoing commitment to making our meetings more open and transparent."

If this is the beginning of a furious backtracking then it is to be welcomed. But it does imply that what is at stake is not the principle of tweeting during meetings, but a dislike of the content of what is said.

It's no longer a blanket ban - which might look luddite but is the same rule for all - but censorship of individual members of the opposition.

And crucially, it's not what was actually said during the meeting.

If readers want to decide for themselves what Cllr Robertson actually said then they can watch the webcast when the replay goes up (so long as it doesn't develop 'technical problems').

Cornwall proposes 50p flat rate for 'free' bus journeys

Cornwall Council's cabinet today confirmed that no bus routes would be cut for the next two years but also voted to ask the Government to be allowed to pilot a flat rate 50p charge for 'free' bus pass holders.

The first decision is, of course, very welcome as I blogged yesterday. But there is a high degree of concern that we will be going through the process again in just two years and routes may be under threat again then. The instinct of other authorities has been to cut. As Cllr Hicks (an avid reader of this blog) pointed out, Conservative run Somerset County Council has cut 25 rural bus routes recently.

The flat rate charge is very concerning for me. Although it was only introduced by the last Labour Government, I know that there are many pass holders who simply could not get about if they were forced to pay a charge. Of course there are other pass holders who are relatively well off and could afford to pay. Some have apparently been calling Radio Cornwall to say so. But the option of them paying for some, or all, journeys has always been there. There is no compulsion to use a free pass even if you have one.

But for those older people and those with disabilities who cannot afford to pay, the ability to get about for free using a pass is essential. And as my colleague Cllr Pat Rogerson said, you often have to use more than one bus to make a journey. So a person travelling from a village outside Bodmin to Treliske Hospital might have to use eight buses on their return journey and to pay 50p each time.

The impact on the poorest people in our society has not yet been assessed, but already the Cabinet member is mentally spending the £2.9 million he reckons that such a scheme could raise. I hope that the Council reconsider this proposal and will consider that it should be altered to retain the right to free travel for the poorest pensioners and people with disabilities.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

How many new homes does Cornwall need?

Perhaps the most important single document of Cornwall Council's four year term is currently out for public consultation. The Core Strategy will guide development across Cornwall for the next 20 years.

At the heart of the document is the question of the level of growth and how the new homes should be distributed across the Duchy.

The major constraint is the National Planning Policy Framework. This is the government document that dictates that there should be a certain level of growth across the UK. This in turn means that Cornwall Council's subsidiary document must also propose some growth. But how much do we want?

I'll put my cards on the table. I'm in favour of growth - but only growth for a purpose. With around 31,000 people on the housing waiting list, we need to provide more affordable homes in all parts of Cornwall. But we need to be smarter than we have been in the past about the size of these properties and where they are built. In particular, we need more larger properties for the social rented sector. I understand that there is just one five bedroom house in Launceston, for example, despite there being at least six local families who need that size of property (and many more from across Cornwall).

We also need to make sure that there are affordable homes built in some of the villages. We cannot rely on new homes in order to make local facilities sustainable. But we can be certain that, without new families moving into our villages, local shops and pubs and schools will continue to struggle and close.

And the type of properties being built needs to be looked at too. Recently, social housing - in fact almost all new developments - have been boxy little houses and flats on the outskirts of town. Often with no facilities or bus connections, these can become cut off commuter villages. We need to make sure that when there is new development it comes equipped with all the local facilities to make the new householders part of a thriving community.

Part of the urge to approve lots of new homes - and supermarkets - is that the council can get planning gain from the developers. Technically known as section 106, these are developer contributions to local facilities and projects. In theory, these are meant only to offset the additional burdens on the local community caused by the development. But in practice, there has been more and more reliance on s106 to provide the basic infrastructure including schools and replacements for tired old leisure centres and community buildings. Developers, naturally, don't like paying for anything that puts a dent in their profits, but I think that the council has a duty to try to extract as much community benefit as possible from any development. In particular, because the more we get from one developer, the less we feel the need to approve the next one unless it is right for the local area.

And just as we should ensure we get the most bang for our buck in terms of s106, so councillors need to get as much affordable housing as possible. The official policy of the council is to get 50% affordable housing in developments of 2 or more houses across most built up areas. In some of the largest towns and in Truro, this is relaxed to 40% of developments of 5 or more. And there is further detail about the mix of affordable housing that should be delivered.

So far, so good.

But very often developers will complain that they cannot afford to build if the affordable housing level is put so high. The so-called viability test is used to try to get permission with a lower number for affordable homes. In general, I don't buy this. Although we need social housing, it should not come at any cost. The idea that, say, 15% of something is better than 50% of nothing has been accepted far too often. A green field can only be built on once and we should hold out a bit more for the full allocation. If some developments don't go ahead as a result then that is not the end of the world.

So whilst we need growth in order to provide affordable housing and community infrastructure, getting the right level of developer contribution for each development should mean that we can limit the number of new houses and the number of new supermarkets being built.

So how many houses should be built?

The figure being proposed in the core strategy contribution is 48,000 new homes over the next 20 years. As various people have noted, this is likely to take Cornwall on the path towards a population of more than a million by the end of this century. True, not many of us will be around to see that milestone surpassed. But even so, the development on the way will put a huge strain on roads, railways, schools and all the other bits of infrastructure in Cornwall. Not to mention the loss of lots of green space.

Some have suggested that this figure is too low and should be 52,000 or 57,000 or 60,000 or more. In the very unlikely event that Cornwall suddenly needs more houses during the course of the 20 years then the core strategy is not a barrier. The rules state that the proposed number of new houses can be increased but cannot be cut.

Personally, I think that the balance of the need for new affordable homes set against the fear of concreting over Cornwall leads to a total of around 32,000 to 38,000. But the bare figure is not the end of the story. Each community should be asked to consider how many homes it can accommodate and where they should go. In part, this will come as part of the new neighbourhood planning function of the Localism Act. But Cornwall Council should resist the urge to meddle and impose unrealistically high figures on each and every community.

If you want to have your say on the core strategy - whether you agree with my view or not - you can do so online here.

For more coverage of this debate, Cornish Zetetics posts regular opinions.

Santorum - The Obama conspiracy theory candidate?

Rick Santorum appears to be trying to inherit the mantle of Donald Trump by fostering the conspiracy theories surrounding President Obama.

But where Trump had his concerns over where the President was born, Santorum also adds the President's religion as the video below demonstrates:

As Andrew Sullivan of 'The Dish' notes:
"Santorum knows that the president is a Christian. And he lets this lie pass. He also doesn't challenge the lunacy of Obama being ineligible for the presidency because he was born in Kenya"
After President Obama released his birth certificate to prove Trump wrong, the businessman had nowhere to go and withdrew from the battle to be President. Will the same happen to Santorum?

Lifeline bus u-turn welcome but questions still remain

Cornwall Council has performed a very welcome u-turn and has decided not to cut local bus routes. The previous plan was to save money to cover a shortfall in the current budget by cutting many lifeline routes which are relied on by people to get to work, college or to see family and friends. More than a quarter of supported routes looked set to disappear within a couple of months.

This reversal is, of course, very good news. But there are still questions concerning the routes where no tenders have been received and how this scheme is being paid for. We are also concerned that there is no certainty for the network beyond the next election and no plan for how the network can be expanded.

This u-turn has only come about because of the huge opposition from local communities and the campaign led by Cornwall Liberal Democrats. We highlighted the damage that the original proposal would do to local communities and the unfair criteria by which the potential cuts were selected. Local campaign groups have sprung up across Cornwall to save their local services.

But the fact that the Conservatives could have considered such a massive cut to the bus network shows that their priorities are all wrong. They simply do not understand that buses are essential for people to get to work or to college, to see family and friends or even to get to hospital.

Cornwall Liberal Democrats would guarantee that we won't cut any supported local bus routes in Cornwall and we will be working with local communities to identify how to expand the network. Cornwall Council has a vision for better local transport, but the current administration seems determined to ignore that vision.

Although the number is not revealed in the Cabinet papers, I am told that there are seven routes which cannot be re-tendered at this time either because the bid came in too late or the price asked for was 'ridiculously high'. I also understand that there were technical issues with one operator which meant that the bids made by them couldn't be awarded. Four of these are in the former North Cornwall, two in the former Caradon area and one in former Restormel. Council officers say they are "confident that they will get tenders in and that services will run" but until the tenders are awarded there will remain a degree of concern.

Perhaps the bigger concern is that this is merely a series of cuts delayed. The Cabinet papers state categorically:
"That the Cabinet notes that the new arrangements are for two years only, and that further efficiencies and new ways of delivering services will need to continue to be developed."
So local buses are safe until after the next election. But after that the Council is quite clear that there will need to be another review and further efficiencies will need to be found. That is because saving the bus routes is set to cost £1.2 million a year which is coming mainly by delaying repaying the current year's over-spend.

Which brings us back to how we got into this mess in the first place - a hole in the budget that none of the administration thought was significant and didn't bother to do anything about until halfway through the year.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

In response to Jude Robinson...

Jude Robinson, Cornwall Council's only Labour member, has written a post arguing that Cornwall would be wrong to freeze council tax this year because it would create bigger problems in the future.

Rather than me try to summarise and get it wrong, read her post here and then come back and let me tell you why I disagree with her.

Welcome back.

In essence, this argument boils down to who pays for the necessary increase in council tax that needs to be imposed in order to protect essential services.

That increase - after taking account of efficiency savings - is 2.5%.

That Labour argument appears to be that it should all be borne by the taxpayer through a council tax increase.

The Liberal Democrats say that we should take account of the Government's offer of a grant equivalent to 2.5% of council tax - about £6 million. If we took that grant then we could freeze council tax for another year, saving local people anywhere from £20 to £60+.

Jude is quite right to point out this government grant is for one year only and will disappear next year. So what do we do next year? Ideally, we keep council tax as low as possible again whilst guaranteeing not to cut front-line services. How much of an increase in council tax this will cost can't be predicted yet. But if it takes an increase of more than 2.5% then we should consider that.

A higher increase might sound bad - but combined with this year's freeze it make sense in terms of money.

Suppose a family's council tax this year was £1000. Next year, with a 2.5% rise it will be £1025. The year after, with another 2.5% rise it would be £1050.63.

So over the next three years:

According to the Lib Dem plan, a family might pay £1000+£1000+£1050.63 = £3050.63

According to Jude's preference, a family might pay £1000+£1025+£1050.63 = £3075.63

So Labour would cost you £25 more but wouldn't have a single extra penny in the bank - so there would be no extra services.

We cannot predict what level of council tax we will need in 2013/14 to keep the current level of frontline services, but I hope that this shows that for the coming year it makes sense to accept the Government grant and freeze council tax. Cornwall cannot afford to look a £6 million gift horse in the mouth.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Latest Community Chest funding

I realise that I haven't posted in a while about the grants that I have made from my community chest. This is the money that all Cornwall Councillors have each year (currently £2,195) to support local groups with projects and activities.

Cornwall Council has recently received a freedom of information request asking for details of how all councillors use their grant and the complete list shows just what a good scheme the community chest is. The entire list will be published by the council shortly, but my grants are as follows:

Cedar Grange - Equipment for art group project £162.40
Cedar Grange is one of the largest care homes in our area. They wanted to set a new art group and my funding helped to buy some equipment to get them started.

Chamber of Commerce - Christmas Lights £500
Chamber of Commerce - Late Night Shopping £500
The Christmas lights and late night shopping are key parts of attracting people to Launceston during the winter months. The old lights needed replacing and, together with my fellow Cornwall Councillors, I was delighted to contribute to some of the new lights last year and to this year's late night shopping fun.

Causley Festival - Publicity £500
Causley Festival - Rap Workshop and Poetry Slam £395
M-Mad - Causley Film Project - £500
The Causley Festival is a relatively new initiative trying to draw visitors into our town and to provide more events for locals. I provided help with publicity in the first year and then contributed towards the costs of an event aimed at younger people in the second. I also provided funding to M-Mad, a creative arts project for young people, for them to produce a film of the second year aimed at attracting future sponsorship.

FLIC - Hire of films, equipment, town hall and advertising £200
When I ask people what they most want to see change about our town, the most common answer is a cinema. Hopefully, we might get a permanent cinema at some point in the future. Until that time, FLIC do a great job putting on shows each month which are attracting bigger and bigger audiences.

Gwynngala/LAFF - Display Boards £500
Both Gwynngala and Launceston Arts for Fun (LAFF) are very popular groups of local artists. They wanted to buy display boards to enable them to show off their works.

Amateur Boxing Club - Headguards £500
Des Charnock and his team do a great job at the boxing club and have produced some very talented boxers. However, in order to compete, the youngsters need proper head guards which conform to official standards.

Neighbourhood Policing Team - Coach Park artwork £500
I was approached by local police officers asking for help with a project in conjunction with the Barefoot Games to provide a legitimate outlet for local street artists. The Town Council kindly offered the use of the coach park wall and I helped to pay for the materials.

Launceston Foodbank - Set Up £500
This is a great project which has been set up by a group led by Keith Roberts of Central Methodist Church. Since I posted about it, it has opened its doors and helped a number of clients. With more and more people struggling even to put food on the table, the foodbank is a facility we need (even if we wish we didn't). I hope that it will become an organisation that is the top of everyone's supporting list over the next few months.

Rifle and Pistol Club - Air rifle £395
The rifle club has been operating for many years and approached me because they want to attract more young members. They wanted to buy a lightweight air rifle in order to teach new members how to shoot and how to treat air weapons and firearms safely and with respect. Having seen the expertise on offer at the club I was more than happy to support them.

If your organisation could do with help, email me at alexfolkes@gmail.com and I will send you the forms you need to complete to gain Cornwall Council approval.

This is the press release put out by Launceston Rifle and Pistol Club:

Launceston Rifle and Pistol Club is welcoming more young members after a council grant helped fund a new lightweight air rifle.

Under Cornwall Council’s community chest scheme, each councillor is allocated £2,195 each year to support local projects run by voluntary and community groups, some of which goes to help young people’s leisure activities.

Launceston Rifle and Pistol Club (LRPC) invited Launceston Central Councillor Alex Folkes to visit the club and learn about its work with young people. He agreed to allocate £395 from his community chest for a lightweight Air Arms S200 air rifle to allow more youngsters to take
part in the sport, and was so impressed he even decided to join the club himself.

Councillor Folkes said: “The community chest scheme is a very valuable way for councillors to support local groups and projects in their area. I'm very glad to have been able to support such a wide range of projects over the past two and a half years.

"Launceston Rifle and Pistol Club is a long-established and dedicated group seeking to bring in more young members. I was happy to be able to support them with a grant.

"In a rural area, many young people have access to air weapons and firearms. Teaching them how to use them safely as well as storing them securely is a vital lesson to learn and the club does a great job, all under the auspices of local police checks and registration."

LRPC is the home of 18-year-old Sam Hooper who learned to shoot at the club and came top of the South West Smallbore Rifle Youth Championship in 2011.

The club was established around 75 years ago and moved to its current location in a disused quarry in 1961. It offers the chance to shoot air rifles and air pistols, as well as .22 rimfire rifles.

Secretary Alan Savory said: “We’re very grateful to Cornwall Council and Alex Folkes for this grant which will allow the club to accept and train more young members.

“The only way the club is going to carry on is by getting the younger generation involved. I’ve been shooting since the early 1970s and it’s given me tremendous satisfaction and pleasure over those years. I’ve always been one of the top club shooters but I look forward to a time when some of the youngsters come and knock me off my perch.

“I’m prepared to give as much time as I can to the younger generation to encourage them.”

LRPC made the news last year when member Dave Wood was awarded the Lord Lieutenant’s Trophy for his hard work and dedication to the club.

Club Chairman Bernie Masters said shooting was inexpensive as the club could help newcomers with the kit they needed.

“Shooting offers young and old, men and women, boys and girls all a chance to compete with each other on equal terms in a sport that demands discipline, team work, self-control and respect for others,” he said.

Since receiving the rifle, the club has been able to accept two new teenage members who are coached at the club with their parents present. To join the club, which is open to everyone aged 14 and over, call Secretary Alan Savory on 01566 785244 or email launceston.rpc@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Bid to increase councillor special responsibility allowances defeated

Cornwall Council has again rejected a proposal to increase pay for three Conservative cabinet support members. The rejection was made by 57 votes to 45 at today's full council meeting.

The debate was meant to be about setting in train the process for agreeing allowances for the new councillors elected in 2013. The authority has consistently agreed by large majorities that they don't want to consider an increase mid-term and Lib Dems stood on a manifesto commitment of not raising allowances during this council. But it is right that the process of agreeing allowances for the four years from 2013 should be started.

However, as I blogged before, there was an extra clause asking for a quickie review of all allowances - particularly special responsibility allowances. The Leader was quite open about the reason for this - that he thought there should be an increase in the money paid to the three Conservatives who act as Cabinet Support Members.

The council as a whole (with a large number of rebelling Tories) agreed that any money for the CSMs should be considered as part of the overall review to be implemented in 2013 and not before.

The other interesting debate was over a Lib Dem proposal to ask the independent remuneration committee to seek to recommend and allowances scheme which would help to promote a more even balance of councillors. At present Cornwall Council is only 28% female and massively biased towards those of retirement age or older. I understand there are just eleven under the age of 45. Many of the administration front bench voted against the proposal to try to promote a better balance.

(Disclosure - I currently hold the post of chair of the Council's Electoral Review Panel. This role does not carry a special responsibility allowance.)

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sophia for Miss Cornwall 2012

A huge amount of good wishes to Launceston girl Sophia de Rochefort who has made the shortlist for Miss Cornwall 2012.

Part of the contest is a public vote which opens on February 14th. Forgive me if I link to that occasionally when it opens.

In the meantime, if you are on Facebook, please 'like' Sophia's fanpage.

Council Tax - mea culpa

Tomorrow morning Radio Cornwall will be running a story on council tax and, specifically, the delay I had in paying mine.

I haven't talked about it before now because I view a person's private financial matters as being personal - just as the rest of their private life should be. However, I understand that others, including Radio Cornwall, see it as an issue worthy of coverage when a councillor is late paying their council tax.

The law is pretty clear. A councillor is disqualified from voting on budget issues if he or she is two or more months behind on their council tax payments. I have never fallen foul of that rule. However between budget votes I did fall behind on a number of occasions to the extent that legal action was taken against me and I deeply regret that this was the case. My excuse, such as it is, is that since I was elected in 2009 I have lived for the most part on my councillor allowance of £12,100 per year and I put other bills before council tax. But it is wrong to fall behind and I apologise to the people who I represent for letting them down in this way. I can assure anyone who cares that I have paid my full council tax for the current year and won't fall behind again.

What this episode has done, however, is shown me how many people have difficulty paying their council tax. For some (like me) it is a foolish mistake. For others though, the bills are just too much to cope with in the current climate. As a council, I think there is more we could be doing to ensure that those in genuine hardship are helped to get any support and benefits to which they might be entitled. The schemes are there, but we sometimes fail to make people aware of them. Cornwall Council needs to raise tax to provide crucial services, but we have to ensure that families do not suffer disproportionate hardship as a result.

I know I'm one of the more overtly political of the elected members at county hall and some will no doubt see my news as just deserts. If that's the case, then so be it. I'll continue to work as hard as possible for the people who showed their trust in me by giving me this position and I won't be letting up in my work for them. But whilst my campaigning may occasionally be hard, I promise I'll never resort to attacks on a person's personal circumstances or private behaviour. There are different views as to what is best for Cornwall and there should be a passionate debate. But that debate should not descend to attacks on the private lives of your opponents.

Splashing the cash on celebrities

How much is it worth to have a celebrity present a load of trade awards? That's the question for Cornwall Council after the Western Morning News revealed that the authority, via the Cornwall Development Company, has paid TV presenters Kirsty Allsopp and Ben Fogle £6,000 each to present the annual tourism awards in 2009 and 2010.

It should be noted that CDC has said that this amount was covered by commercial sponsorship and so did not cost taxpayers anything directly.

But how much does having a celebrity matter? It's obviously nice for the award winners to have a (vaguely) famous face in the photos and tourism is a very important part of the Cornish economy. But if the sponsorship was not found to cover the costs, would it be considered a good use of taypayers' money?

Friday, 13 January 2012

In the interests of fairness...

A week ago I posted a list of questions I had regarding the economic case for the stadium for Cornwall which had been passed to me by the Council. I also passed these on to the Council themselves and they have sought answers from the consultants.

This is the response they have sent which I reproduce below:

"Dear Jordan

Re: Response to Cllr. Folkes regarding Economic impact assessment for Cornwall Stadium

In response to the comments regarding the Economic Impact assessment in the Phase 2 report (Oct 11) made by Councillor Folkes, we have looked over the detail again of the Five Lines Consulting assessment and feel that overall it provides a realistic and robust overview of the potential economic impact of the stadium.

Whilst the analysis is at a high level at this stage, there has been extensive consultation with the clubs and other potential occupying parties and users of the stadium to suggest that figures given relating to attendances, usage, ticket sales, prices and additional spends etc. are realistic and robust. It would be useful to understand which ‘number of areas’ that Cllr. Folkes refers that do relate back to evidence provided by the clubs and end users.

It could be argued that the deadweight analysis be undertaken again now that there is more certainty in terms of the occupiers of the facility, however, the new stadium effect on attendances should not be under-estimated. A number of factors determine attendance at sporting events – from ticket price to quality of facilities, size of the catchment area, historic and current success levels. Typically, however, there is a consistent increase in attendances on moving to a new stadium of up to 47% in year 1 of operation. These increases have broadly been sustained beyond Year 1, through to Year 5, with only minor decreases. Taking a more prudent approach and removing from the analysis any cases where clubs previously had identifiable latent demand or played their first seasons in a new stadium immediately following promotion or relegation, there is an again a consistent average attendance increase of 37%. This is therefore considered to be the ‘new stadium effect’ (IPW… research into the ‘new stadium effect’ at English stadia since 1993).

In terms of potential jobs created within the clubs we feel that these are realistic estimates at this stage and have been discussed with the clubs albeit they are predicated by the Pirates achieving Premiership status (which a new stadium will allow them to achieve, by being admitted because they meet the ground regulations, if they win the Championship) and the club therefore becoming a full time operation.

I hope this provides sufficient feedback for the time being and if further detail needs to be provide for the E&E OSC then please let us know.

Best regards,

Dougal Nicholls
Associate Consultant
I'm grateful to the consultants and officers for providing this. I don't think it answers all the questions posed, but we will be able to have further discussion when the matter comes to scrutiny - now likely to be in February.

Five to fight for Lanson Town Council vacancy

Five candidates will be contesting the Launceston town council election for a seat in South Ward made vacant by the sad death of Olver Harris.

The five are:

Ashley Crapp, standing as Community Volunteer - Independent
Maurice Davey - Liberal Democrat
Anna Duke - no description
Leighton Penhale - no description
Susan Roberts Alfar - Labour

I'm obviously backing Maurice Davey, the landlord of the Bell Inn and a great local bloke. But I'm delighted to see such interest in the seat. Last time there was a by-election there was no contest and John Conway was elected unopposed. The time before when there was a vacancy it was filled by co-option.

Next May, all the seats on the town council will be up for election - 7 in South Ward, 7 in Central and 2 in North. I hope that those who are not elected this time will choose to re-stand and that we can encourage a wide range of others to put themselves forward. Local democracy is important. It's no sleight on the current town councillors, but it is always better to have a contest than not!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Calling the Republican bluff

One of the America's richest men, Warren Buffet, recently complained that he wasn't paying enough tax. He pointed out that he was paying a lower marginal rate than his secretary.

Fair enough, said arch conservative Senator Mitch McConnell, if you are feeling guilty, send in a cheque. Another Republican Sentator, John Thune, sought to introduce a new column on tax returns to allow the rich the option of paying more to help ease the national debt.

Now it looks as though Mr Buffet (worth around $45bn) is going to call the Republican bluff. He's offered to match every contribution that the Republican senators give, dollar for dollar. And he's prepared to make a special case for Senator McConnell, paying $3 for every $1 from the politician.

Somehow I have a feeling that Mr Buffet is going to keep his money in his pockets.

The return of Castle Rock

Castle Rock is back this year. It's happening on July 7th and confirmed bands so far include The Patrick James Pearson Band, The Sum Of, Motherload and Suite Noir.

You can find out more information on their website or on Facebook or Twitter.

I understand that the events may not be confined to just the Saturday, so check the website for updates on a regular basis.

Scotland's Independence Contest - Salmond knocks out Cameron, faces tougher task with Moore

The BBC got it right yesterday when they promoted the issue of the potential Scottish independence referendum to the lead slot in their broadcast - above the announcement of the High Speed 2 rail line. Both are big stories, but the future of the UK is surely worthy of top billing. The Speaker of the House of Commons got it wrong by giving the railway top billing.

The debate will rumble on for many months or years (as will that over High Speed 2) but already seems to have settled into a reasoned conversation between SNP Leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Scotland Secretary Michael Moore.

Alex Salmond is a very canny political operator who has already seen off the slightly hysterical interventions by PM David Cameron. The PM wanted to bring forward the date of the vote and even floated the idea of allowing Scots living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to have a say. But his basic line was a dummy spitting claim that Scotland could only act through the UK Parliament, threatening legal action to enforce this.

Salmond, on the other hand wants to see the vote take place later in his term and makes the quite reasonable claim that the SNP victory last year gives him a mandate to hold a vote. He knows that a bind

It took the calming influence of Lib Dem Mr Moore to ensure that the writs didn't start flying quite yet. He made it clear that a vote will happen and that it will take place after negotiations between Westminster and Holyrood. He batted away the SNP desire to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote saying that he fully supported such a change, but it should be made because it is right, not just to give the SNP a tactical advantage.

In calming the waters, Michael Moore has ensured that he has his job for the long term. He cannot be sacked or promoted without it being seen to be an indictment of the anti-referendum campaign.

The other name that will be at the forefront of the debate appears to be former Chancellor Alistair Darling. It is felt that a 'big beast' is needed to take on Salmond and the Labour man is the favourite for the role. As such, he was trotted out for the Today programme this morning. But why take the risk of a Salmond vs Darling popularity contest. In a debate about what is right for Scotland (and for the UK as a whole) the discussion should focus on ideas, not personality.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Superfast broadband now available in St Stephens

A quick post to note that the superfast broadband network has now been extended to the St Stephens area of Launceston.

This is part of the gradual roll out across Cornwall and is the second part of Launceston to be hooked up (the first being the top end of Western Road, St Johns Road and part of Pennygillam). If you live in the area and want to check whether you can get superfast broadband, click here.

Unfortunately, I still don't know when other areas will be connected, but as soon as I find out, I'll post here.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Romney likes being able to fire people

Finally, the candidate focus in the US republican primary is turning its attention onto runaway favourite Mitt Romney and he suddenly looks vulnerable.

The story of the primary to date has been how one challenger after another has risen up in the polls, overtaken Romney and then fallen away through a mixture of media scrutiny and the sledgehammer of un-regulated attacks ads paid for by the slush fund loosely connected to Romney.

First there was Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party favourite who won the opening bout when she topped the poll in the Ames Straw Poll last summer. Admittedly, the straw poll is all about paying for food and drink and getting your supporters to turn up to a state fair... (Only in America). But then she fell to earth with a crash to the extent that she scored just 6% in the actual Iowa caucuses and departed the race.

Next up was Pizza Company Exec Herman Cain. The man who wanted to be President but didn't really understand what was going on in Libya. He too became the favourite only to crash when multiple claims of sexual harrasment were made by former employees.

And then there was Rick Perry - the Governor of Texas who took 'Oh Shucks' populism to a new level. He entered the race to a huge fanfare but then fell away as the voters realised that electing someone more stupid than George W Bush would be, well, stupid.

And Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives who caused so much trouble for Clinton but who seems unable to translate that into primary success. He too saw his stock rise only to be attacked for his work as a lobbyist when he left office.

Finally there was Rick Santorum. A former senator renowned for getting pork barrel deals for his area - which is great if you are running for re-election in your state, but a little hard to explain to the voters of the other 49. In a party that is defined by religious zealotry, Senator Santorum is something special (he's more catholic than the Pope). With perfect timing he came within 8 votes of actually winning Iowa by the simple expedient of mounting his charge too late for anyone to do anything about it. The trouble is that then he became the focus of the attacks and he had no money left to rebut.

In the background the whole time have been two other candidates. Ron Paul is a 76 year old libertarian gynaecologist. His ideological purity is unimpeachable. The trouble is that his policies are hated by more than half of his party and he refuses to rule out running as a third party candidate if he loses. Paul will come second or third in every primary thanks to his fanatical band of supporters. He just doesn't have enough crossover support to win. He does have the best adverts though.

And then there is Jon Huntsman whose bid was fatally flawed by having worked for the Obama administration as Ambassador to China and by being nice. He's the other moderate in the race. But when Romney is leading by such a margin, there's no place for the other moderate. Huntsman has staked his whole run on doing well in this week's New Hampshire primary. in effect, he's this week's Santorum.

But with all the other candidates a busted flush, it has become time for the attention to focus on Romney. His problem is that he ran a venture capitalist company for a while. This business invested in other firms and hoped to make a profit. The trouble is that, when things didn't work out, people lost their jobs. And sometimes when things did work out people lost their jobs too. Today Romney made his most serious gaffe when he announced:
"I like being able to fire people"
That's capitalism for you. But it sits a little uneasily in a country which is facing mass unemployment. How can the republicans attack Obama over job losses when their presumptive candidate likes sacking people? And their other main attack line - the apparently 'socialist' decision to introduce a health care safety net - is blunted too by Romney's decision to have exactly the same in Massachusetts when he was Governor.

Finally there appears to be a chink in Romney's armour. It's not enough for any of the other candidates to hope to exploit. But if it runs for a while and Romney's popularity tanks as that of the others has done then it may just be enough to see one of those waiting in the wings (Jeb Bush, Tim Pawlenty or even Sarah Palin) decide to throw their hat into the ring.

Buses to be centre of annual community debate

The subject of local bus services will be at the centre of the annual community network debate taking place in Launceston Town Hall on 26th January from 7.15pm. I'm delighted that Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks and Assistant Head of Transportation Tim Wood will also be present.

The community network is the forum for Cornwall Council, local town and parish councils, agencies like the police and health service and the public to come together to discuss issues of importance to our town and the local area. We meet formally four times a year with a themed meeting on a key issue.

But once a year we also try to hold a much bigger meeting at which anything (and any subject) goes. This is held in the town hall and we hope that as many members of the public as possible can attend.

One of the key issues at the moment is the threat to local bus services. This is an area which Graeme hs political responsibility for and Tim is the lead officer. The detailed proposals for local services will be published next week and debated at a scrutiny committee on 25th and the community debate will be the first chance for the public to have their say. We've therefore decided to make bus services the centre of the debate and invited Tim and Graeme to come along.

Of course the debate isn't limited to just talking about buses. As the Cabinet member for highways and transportation, I'm sure that Cllr Hicks will be able to discuss issues such a parking and road safety as well as the Council's wider stance. We're also happy to hear the views of local residents on any issue of public services.

So if you live in Launceston or one of the surrounding parishes and have a view on local bus services or any other issue, please come along on the 26th.

Tories try to up councillor pay (yet again)

Whilst the Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council want to discuss a new scheme of low interest loans for low income families whose homes need urgent repair, it seems the Conservative and Independent administration is more concerned about their own pay.

An item on the council agenda recommends that an independent remuneration panel be set up to look at the full range of councillor pay for after the next election. That's fair enough. Everyone has always agreed that the scheme should be looked at once every four years and there's no problem with setting things in motion now ready for May next year.

But wait. What's this extra line in the report?
"2. the IRP be asked to conduct a swift review of the existing Members’ allowances, and, in particular, the extent and level of Special Responsibility Allowances with a view to making appropriate recommendations to the meeting of Full Council on 27 March 2012"
Special responsibility allowances are the extra money paid to those councillors who hold special positions - members of the cabinet and chairs of committees in the main. The need for a 'swift review' of such payments is not really clear to me and isn't explained in the report. Last time this issue came up it was an attempt by Cllr Robertson to get extra money for three of his Conservative chums. That move was resoundingly defeated by the full council. We will see next Tuesday if this is another attempt to get the same thing.

The Liberal Democrats have always been clear in our opposition to any change in allowances until after the 2013 election and have repeatedly voted against administration attempts to increase pay.

Lib Dems propose low interest repair loans to keep vulnerable families in their homes

Next Tuesday sees another regular full council meeting - the time when all 123 members get together to discuss key issues of policy and budget. It's the time when we have the chance to quiz all the cabinet members as well as to put forward ideas about how to make life better for local residents.

For next week's meeting, the Liberal Democrats are putting forward a motion in favour of a low interest loan scheme for householders who are on a low income and facing large bills for repairing their home.

It's always better for people to be kept in their homes rather than moving into social housing. Not only is it cheaper for the council, but it is less disruptive for families and it doesn't deprive another family on the waiting list of their place in the queue.

But there are some families on low incomes who are facing huge bills for repairing their homes - perhaps for a new roof or to deal with dry rot. If they cannot afford to pay for the work then they are at risk of becoming a burden on the council. Introducing a low interest loan scheme will help them to afford the repairs and to keep them in their home.

Such a scheme could be introduced without costing council taxpayers anything - the loans would be low interest, but still enough to cover the cost to the council of borrowing. In addition, they would require a charge against the property - like a mortgage - so that in the even of a default the council would get its money back.

I hope that this scheme will be seen by all councillors as a good way to save money for the authority and to keep families in their homes.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

No you may not call your child 'Anal'

Way back in 2008 I wrote a post about silly names given to children and it's proved to be one of my most popular posts - even though I suspect most people are actually looking for public transport between Edgware and Victoria. Now officials in New Zealand have released a list of names they have refused to allow parents to give to their children.

There are no specifically banned names, officials insist. But the rules state that they must be less than 100 characters long, not appear to confer a position on the child (so Princess and Justice have both been refused on a number of occasions) and cannot be offensive. In the latter category, some parents apparently wanted to bestow the name 'Anal' on their newborn - a case where government prevention seems the least they deserve.

Numbers ('89'), Roman Numerals ('II' and 'III') and keyboard symbols '*' and '/') are banned, as are single letters ('J' is popular, presumably among Simpsons fans) and religious references (lots of 'Lucifers' have been saved).

There are a few of the names which sound like they should be adopted by bands - 'Yeah Detroit' and 'Keenan Got Lucy' are great - but nothing trumps 'Tulula Does The Hula From Hawaii', or Kay as she now prefers.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Cornwall EMA - a welcome scheme (but still with problems)

Cornwall Council’s Tory-led administration seems to have got quite touchy about any criticism of their plan to introduce a Cornish EMA or Bursary. Cabinet member Neil Burden even went to the extent of commenting on this blog about it.

A policy idea that appeared to start with a desperate attempt to come up with something interesting during Conservative Party Conference week has turned into a scheme which, whilst still significantly flawed, is an example of what Cornwall Council can do to help the less well off.

That's not to say that the process has been an easy one. I don’t think there is anyone who opposes the principle of additional support to 16 to 19 year olds who need extra help to study. But the details of the scheme have been very slow to emerge and a lot of the information that was released raised many concerns and questions.

Today we had the in-depth study of the plans and I'm very glad that most of the concerns have been addressed. There was concern that this funding was only being made available to those studying academic courses and that those on vocational courses would be ignored. In fact the funding will go to all types of level three study which includes a range of vocational study. Of course, many pupils do not study at this level but there are other forms of support available to them. They won’t be missing out but this fund should help to address the gap that did exist for higher level learners.

There is also the concern about how the money will be shared out. The money is being allocated to the schools and colleges on a per-pupil basis and they will be responsible for passing it out from there. This means we have to trust the providers to divvy it up fairly. I do have that trust, but I want to make sure that it is pupil-responsive. As an example, two students at Truro College might have very different needs. One might live nearby and need help with buying books. The other might be traveling all the way from North Cornwall and help with travel costs might be the top priority. Can the providers guarantee that they will be flexible enough to cope with both sets of needs? The distribution criteria will be submitted by the providers to the Council in the summer (before the scheme starts) and so there will be a chance to be reassured on this issue then.

There were a couple of issues surrounding cross-border pupils. We sought assurances that the money would not be given to schools or colleges on the basis of students from Devon (or further afield) who study in Cornwall and that those who come to Cornwall to study would not receive the benefit of this scheme. We got satisfactory assurances on both these matters.

However, there is still the issue of pupils from Cornwall who travel to Devon to study. In most cases this is not a real choice - it so happens that the nearest provider of their chosen course is located there. There was a lot of resistance from the administration to changing this. Quite rightly they don’t want to set up a cumbersome and costly administration procedure and want to hand the allocation process over to the providers. But that comes at a cost of excluding Cornish pupils studying in Devon. There was a lot of unease in the scrutiny committee about the failure to assist these young people. The implication is that if you need the money then you might have to travel hundreds of extra miles per week in order to receive it. In the case of those for whom the new funding is the difference between studying or not, this places a huge extra burden on them which is not going to be helpful to their studying. The committee agreed to ask the administration to keep looking for a solution - but the failure to do so until now, although regrettable, shouldn’t stop what is otherwise a good scheme.

It's so good that the other major concern is about the fact that this scheme is only being funded for two years. That happens to be the money we have left from convergence funding for disadvantaged 16-19 year olds. But if this scheme is worth doing (and I think it is) then surely it should carry on into the future.

A final point - when this scheme was first talked about, there was the proposal to have both a ‘Cornish EMA’ and a bursary for HE students. For legal reasons, the support for 16-19 year olds can’t be called an EMA and is now known as a bursary. But I asked about support for higher education students and was told that a scheme to help university level students will be proposed in the near future.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Archive and Record Office - North Cornwall need not apply?

It looks as though North Cornwall is being ruled out as the possible venue for the new Council Archive and Record Office, despite pledges that all areas will be considered equally.

The new building is needed because the existing archive and record space is overflowing. The records office is underneath Old County Hall in Truro and is bursting at the seams. Thousands of items are having to be stored off-site at cost to the Council. The proposal is also to accommodate the Cornish Studies library - currently in Redruth - in the new building.

I have no preconceptions about where the new building should go. It clearly needs to be on a large site because of the space needed and I have made the point that we should be looking at innovative ideas for how to build and pay for the new facility.

Today we were told of the various criteria that will be used to judge sites and that local town and parish councils are to be asked to put sites forward. My concern is that some of the criteria effectively rule out North Cornwall as a venue.

One of the criteria in the briefing we were given states:

"Is the proposed site easily accessible via car and public transport across Cornwall?"

Obviously accessibility is important, but if this is the question then the answer for every part of Cornwall is effectively going to be 'No' because there is no part of Cornwall which is easily accessible by public transport from all across Cornwall, and the situation is getting worse as more and more bus routes are being cut by the Conservative-led authority. However the interpretation of many in County Hall is that this rule will exclude with likes of North Cornwall and others areas without rail or decent bus networks.

What the Council should be doing is to build into the development a plan of how to make the facility genuinely accessible to all. If the best possible location is Redruth (or Truro, or St Austell) then so be it, but those of us who live in North Cornwall should not be prevented from using it by reason of diminishing bus routes. Alternatively, if a perfect site could be found in Launceston, Bodmin (or Liskeard) then the Council should be finding ways of expanding our public transport network to make sure that everyone from the West can get there too.

We'll see over the next couple of months just how firm the commitment to consider all areas is.

Council taking action on illicit sub-letting

There was a bit of national coverage earlier this week as the Government announced that they were considering making it illegal to sub-let a council house. The argument goes that this activity makes it more difficult for those on the housing register to get a property.

I've been chasing up to find out what Cornwall Council does to ensure that this isn't a problem here. Today we got a lot of information from Jane Barlow, the Head of Housing, to whom I'm very grateful.

Cornwall Council says that the last time they had a case of sub-letting was more than 10 years ago and they believe that they have a good network of housing officers as well as lots of inquiries from other tenants so they do not believe they have a problem. I think this attitude is a little complacent but was gratified to find that the authority also co-ordinates with applications for housing benefit and with other databases to keep tabs to ensure that illicit sub-letting doesn't happen.

There are thousands of people in Cornwall on the register waiting for social housing. In many cases they are desperate for new homes. I'm grateful that the council is taking action to ensure that these families are not being held up by illicit sub-letting.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

First group should promote benefits of a new franchise

The news that First Great Western are applying for a new franchise to run rail services between Cornwall and London is not really a surprise. But the question for the company is what they can offer local passengers in terms of service improvements or price reductions so that we should support their bid.

First Great Western pulled out of their current 10 year contract three years early in order to avoid paying the final tranche of money to the government and in order to seek a longer - 15 year - contract. Why the previous government allowed such a break clause and why they loaded the bulk of the payments from FGW into the last three years of the old contract (so they could be avoided) has never been explained. But it has meant that we enter this period of uncertainty much sooner than expected.

The contract specification is now out for public consultation. FGW could sit back and play no part in this discussion but I think it would be helpful for passengers if they explained what they think they can do to improve the service and how they see costs changing over the life of the new franchise.

Congratulations to three locals on New Year Honours

A very belated congratulations to three local people who were recognised in the New Year's Honours list.

Author E V Thompson MBE was kind enough to appear at last year's Causley Festival in the town and is one of the most borrowed local authors from our library.

Andrew Brown now lives near our town after a career in advertising including a spell as Director General of the Advertising Association. He has been made an OBE

But most of all, congratulations to Mary Butler MBE who has given more than 50 years of volunteer service in a wide variety of guises. She is a committed member of the Salvation Army and visits retirement homes and the hospital every week. She also still works part time at the Co-Op in the town square.

All three thoroughly deserve the recognition.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Cornwall Council 'must try harder' on EMA

This Friday there will be a discussion on the details of Cornwall Council's plan for a local Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Whilst the concept of a Cornish EMA is very good and Lib Dems have welcomed it, we're very disappointed with the details of what is being proposed. The Council can and should do better.

My colleague Graham Walker has made the following statement about the plans:

"We welcome the proposal for a local fund to help the 7,647 16-19 year olds worst hit by the withdrawal of EMA, 90% of whom qualified for free school meals. But the council has been very vague until now about how such a proposal would work. Now that we have seen the details, we are very disappointed. The Council can and must do better for local students and pupils."

"The scheme will only help learners at the highest level of study - mainly academic A-levels and AS-levels. Whilst there are many pupils studying at this level who need help, there are many others studying at Further Education colleges who will miss out. We should not be putting forward a scheme which helps only the most academically gifted, particularly given the additional challenges faced by many FE students."

"The scheme also discriminates against those in the East of Cornwall who study in Devon. There are 500 such students who will be ignored by this proposal. For most, this is not a choice but the only practical option to continue their education. We believe that all students from Cornwall should be considered on an equal basis."

"The administration appears to have drawn up their scheme without talking to young people about it. This is a crucial omission which perhaps explains why the proposed scheme is so weak. Liberal Democrats will be asking the Cabinet Member to consult properly and come back with a better scheme."

On Friday we will see how the administration responds.

Stadium for Cornwall - the economic case that doesn't add up - UPDATED

As I've blogged before, Cornwall Council is busy pushing the stadium for Cornwall on the basis of the new jobs it will bring and the boost that it will provide to our local economy. According to the Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Chris Ridgers, the stadium will mean an extra £3 million a year and 109 jobs.

I asked for the basis on which these statements were made and have been sent the consultant's report. You can read the whole thing at the bottom of this post. This document (presumably with others) will be going to a meeting of the Economy Scrutiny Committee in the near future.

I've got a fair amount of experience of sports clubs having worked closely with AFC Wimbledon since their inception up until a couple of years ago and with Launceston Rugby Club since they were in what is now called the Championship. I've therefore been very keen to see how the consultant could justify the very high figures that Cllr Ridgers has been using.

In short, they can't. And in one (small) respect, they don't even try. Because whilst Cllr Ridgers has been saying the economic boost would be £3 million per year, the report only makes claim to £2.6 million.

I've had a close look at the report line by line and, whilst it's impossible to comment on some of the claims being made because of the lack of information given, there are three broad reasons why I think the report fails to justify the claims that it makes:

- there is a massive over-estimate of the amount of new spending
Most of the amount the will be spent at a stadium would have been spent anyway. There might be some new fans (particularly for Pirates matches) and there will be use of the stadium on non-matchdays but neither is enough to justify the claim that the total spend will be four times as much as is spent now.

- there is no hard evidence of what the clubs spend or the fans want
Assertions are made in the report about the amount of local spending and the potential leakage of money outside the Cornish economy. It should have been possible to talk to the clubs about this and present hard evidence in the report, but this is entirely absent. Also missing are any assessments of the spending behaviour of fans (particularly away fans). An estimate of 5% of the total number of stadium users being from out of Cornwall AND staying overnight seems very high and there is no evidence to back it up.

- the estimates about new jobs are just a joke
The report claims that the Pirates will employ 30 new full time staff and Truro City 20 new full time staff just because they move into a stadium - not including bar, catering or grounds staff. Considering a non-league club of Truro City's standing probably employs no more than two or three people other than in the categories mentioned above, it's difficult to see what these 20 new people will be doing.

You can read my full commentary on the report below as well.

I'm happy to admit I'm fallible and don't claim that my analysis is perfect, but I think it raises significant questions about the amount of weight that can be given to the consultant's report. The fans and people of Cornwall deserve a lot better than blind assertion if they are going to be asked to put their hands in their pockets for a stadium. If a genuinely strong case can be made then that's all well and good, but I think this is a pretty weak case as things stand and I look forward to having the chance to question it at the scrutiny meeting.

Stadium Report - AF Comments

Appendix H - Economic Impact Assessment

UPDATE - MK Cllr Stephen Richardson has followed up and suggested that the stadium project is being proposed more as a CV building exercise rather than because it is the right thing for Cornwall to do. He suggests that, if it were really going to turn a profit, someone would have done this already. He also suggests that this might be something which could be the useful subject for a Cornwall wide referendum. Now there's a thought...

UPDATE 2 - My colleague Graham Walker has put his own thoughts down on his blog - well worth a read.