Thursday, 31 May 2012

Free Parking in Launceston this weekend

Launceston Town Council have just got in touch to tell me that they are making the multi-storey car park free all weekend from Saturday until Tuesday.

Cornwall Council car parks will be charging as normal on Saturday between 9am and 4pm. Parking on Sunday is free but charges will apply on Monday and Tuesday from 9am until 4pm.

With all the Jubilee weekend events and the Charles Causley Festival happening too, you won't have to worry about paying for parking thanks to the Town Council.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

White Hart facelift

Congratulations to the White Hart Hotel in Launceston town square. Their scaffolding is coming down after a (dare I say it) much needed facelift. The building looks fantastic - just in time for the holiday weekend.

Planning for the future - where Launceston may grow

Councillors from across the Launceston area have met to decide our recommendations for future development in and around our town. This was the latest in what is known as the Town Framework process which saw an exhibition and public consultation in the town hall a while ago.

 As part of our discussions today, we took the decision to recommend that two areas which had previously been included in the consultation should not be taken forward. These are land at Trebursye (marked KUE2 on the western end of the map) and land off St Stephens Hill (hatched in red and marked KUE6 in the north west of the map). All the other areas for potential development will be taken forward.

Why did we take these areas out? In planning terms, the Trebursye area has access and connectivity problems. The St Stephens area would create more traffic through the already over-congested Newport Square and bridge, add to air quality concerns and there are concerns about how traffic would access St Stephens Hill. In both cases there was also significant public opposition to the plans at the consultation stage.

The importance of this decision is because of changes to the planning legislation. All areas have to be prepared to accept new development according to both the national planning framework and Cornwall-wide 'core strategy'. The town framework process allows local communities to decide where within our boundaries this development should go. So we brought together all the Cornwall councillors for our area (although Cllr Burden has chosen not to attend because he owns land in the area which might be seen as a conflict of interest) as well as representatives from the town council and from St Thomas, South Petherwin and St Stephens parish councils as they were directly affected by the discussions.

The process has looked at all undeveloped land around the town and, on the basis of planning, highways and environmental considerations, has considered whether there are any reasons why land could not be kept in for potential future development. The public consultation phase was crucial in deciding whether marginal areas such as those excluded today should be in or out. In the event, the public response has given weight to the planning reasons why we are recommending they should be taken out.

It's important to note that inclusion in the document does not give carte blanche to developers. Their plans would still need to pass all other planning requirements. But it does pave the way for the community to be able to say no to development in areas where we believe it is wrong to build.

Note: Apologies for the map not being very clear. I'll try to get a better version uploaded shortly.

Monday, 28 May 2012

George Eustice - the John Terry of politics

Amid all the joy over the Government's welcome decision on the pasty tax, one slightly sour note is the decision by George Eustice to promote himself as the leader of the campaign to stop the measure.

According to the Telegraph:

"George Eustice, a Conservative Cornish MP, who has led the campaign to change the proposed tax increase on pasties, welcomed the move."

George, like his fellow Cornish MPs, all backed the key amendment to the budget debate, but this was put forward by St Austell and Newquay MP Steve Gilbert, who also arranged the debate last week to keep the pressure up - a debate that Mr Eustice didn't even attend.

As with any successful campaign, there was no one leader of this one. As mentioned in my last post, people like Kernow King, Steve, John Endacott, the Western Morning News (and the Sun), and I played a key role from start to finish but it was a wider campaign than any single one of us (and I've certainly forgotten other key people - apologies).

Mr Eustice is acting like the John Terry of politics - turning up after the campaign has been won and claiming credit.

Government backs down on pasty tax

This evening the Government has announced that it is backing down on its budget proposals for a pasty tax which would have created huge problems for the Cornish economy and Cornish jobs.

I'm delighted that the Government has listened to the views of the pasty makers and pasty eaters in Cornwall and around the UK. This proposal would have taken up to £40 million out of the Cornish economy alone as well as threatening 1100 jobs in the pasty industry and its supply chain. With this announcement, the pasty industry can go back to being the successful manufacturing sector of which Cornwall is so proud.

The new proposals are to only impose VAT on pasties and other baked goods where an attempt has been made to keep them hot. Pasties sold straight out of the oven - as most bakeries in Cornwall do - will continue to be exempt from VAT. This is the solution that the bakers themselves proposed and which I put forward to Nick Clegg alongside Mark Muncey of the Cornish Pasty Association when he was in Cornwall ten days ago.

This has been the little campaign that could. It started on budget evening with a discussion about the likely consequences of an obscure reference to rotisserie chickens in the budget paperwork. It quickly grew to more than 2,500 Facebook supporters within 24 hours. Since then we have seen marches in London and Falmouth, national newspaper front pages and tens of thousands of new supporters.

This campaign would not have been successful without the huge help and support of many thousands of people. But particular thanks to:
  • Stephen Gilbert MP and all the Cornish MPs; 
  • the Kernow King for organising the finest (but wettest) rally we have seen in a long while;
  • John Endacott for providing the hard numbers to back our case; 
  • John Ault of the Institute of Cornish Studies;
  • Rob Simmons of MK who also noticed it on the first night;
  • the Western Morning News and the Sun for their unfailing support; 
  • and, finally, to every pasty maker in Cornwall for making the best food known to man. 

Cornwall Council confirms NO cash for stadium

Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson has written to the company behind the stadium project to confirm that there will be no council funding for the project at this time.

Cllr Robertson says that, although he personally backs the idea, he is accepting the wishes of the majority of councillors who voted against the idea when it came to full council earlier this month.

Cllr Robertson's letter to CCSL is below:

CCSL 28.05.12

For info: Cllr Robertson was told in the meeting by the legal officer that he could vote on the proposal but chose not to.

Bean-counters and Hicks-onomics - why Cornwall Council is stifling local parking ideas

I complain quite often about how Cornwall Council's parking regime has adversely affected local shops and businesses in Launceston. The latest Cornish Guardian carries a similar story about Liskeard.

The attitude of those at County Hall - that parking services is a cash cow that can be milked at will - means that prices inexorably rise. Even though Cornwall Council has never hit their income targets, the amount they get in from parking in Liskeard has risen a bit over the years. The trouble is that this has come at a cost of fewer cars actually parking in the town and consequently lower footfall in the shops there.

The Council's parking panel - a group with the best of intentions which is increasingly ignored by those with the power to take decisions - says it receives lots of innovative ideas for making parking better but these are rejected by the bean-counters.

Perhaps the most telling contribution actually comes from Cabinet member in charge of parking Graeme Hicks. Cllr Hicks is quoted in the paper as saying that "too much credence" was given to car parking charges in assessing the viability of town centres. "You cannot just sit down and say it's car parking – people will pay where the quality shops are in places such as Plymouth and Truro,"

At the end of last week, the Government and industry experts recognised Liskeard's shops for what they are - a very strong independent retail offer for a local market town - and awarded them Portas Pilot status. (I would argue that Launceston's shops are just as good!) The experts clearly believe that good shops on their own are not enough to attract visitors.

In the land of Hicks-onomics, it makes financial sense to more than double the cost of season tickets for low paid shop workers even though this leads to less than a quarter of tickets being renewed, lower income for the council and more cars parked on residential streets.

Cornwall Council's loan shark campaign

Full marks to Cornwall Council's new loan shark campaign which has been launched to make people aware of the dangers they face when borrowing money from illegal doorstep money-lenders. The campaign also asks people to come forward if they have been a victim of a loan shark as there is help out there.

There an estimated 310,000 households across the UK turning to illegal money lenders. The loan sharks may appear friendly at first but their behaviour can quickly change, with many adding additional amounts to the illegal debt and charging exorbitant rates of interest. The Team have prosecuted illegal lenders who were charging up to 131,000% APR and some who have resorted to extreme methods such as intimidation, threats or violence to enforce repayment.

The biggest problem for anyone tempted to borrow money from a loan shark is the amount you will have to repay. Interest rates are high and punitive penalties often added for missing a single payment by a day. Many people end up taking out multiple loans to cover a single debt.

Things are bad enough with the legal end of the business where companies like Wonga charge interest rates of more than 4000% and target some of those least able to repay.

If you find yourself in debt and unable to cope, the first place to turn should be the CAB or similar impartial (and free) experts. Although you need to be a member for a while before you can take out a loan, local credit unions offer the best alternative to banks if you need to borrow money.

To report a loan shark:
Call the 24/7 confidential hotline 0300 555 2222
Text ‘loan shark + your message’ to 60003
Private message  on
Log-on to

UPDATE - This story shows why even the legal aspect of loan sharking needs urgent action

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Buckingham Palace Garden Party

My absence from the blog over the last couple of days is because I've been in London having been invited to attend one of two Buckingham Palace garden parties.

Each year, Cornwall Council receives two invites for its councillors and, having entered the draw unsuccessfully in the past, was lucky enough to be picked this year. Derek Holley, an Independent from Saltash, was the other and Rob Nolan was also invited as the retiring mayor of Truro.

I apologise in advance for the fact there are no photos accompanying this blog, but cameras (and camera phones) are absolutely banned from the Palace.

The gates opened at 3pm and, despite a huge queue, we were in by 3.15. We chose to go in by the main entrance through the Palace itself. We therefore walked through the formal entrance lined with porcelain and portraits of past monarchs and into the courtyard. Through the courtyard it was into another reception area before going out onto the terrace and then onto the lawns.

It couldn't be described as an intimate affair - there are more than 5000 people invited to each event. There were two service bands playing - a regulation army brass band and an RAF jazz outfit called the Squadronaires.

In order to cater for all the guests, there is a massive tea tent as well as smaller versions for the VIPs and diplomats. Apparently the average guest eats about nine bits of food. It comes as no surprise to relate that I was well above average. The food itself is a mixture of cucumber sandwiches (crusts cut off, natch), little cakes and tarts - all of great quality.

At the beginning and end of the event the royal party is introduced to selected guests. Some of these are apparently pre-arranged but others are plucked from the crowds. We joined the guests lining the route that the royals will take but didn't get chosen. We did, however, spot Her Majesty, HRH Prince Philip, the Princess Royal, The Duke of Kent and Prince Michael of Kent.

It was an honour to be invited to go and hugely enjoyable.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Workers' rights - clear differences between Lib Dems and Conservatives

There's a bit of a spat in Westminster between right-wing Tories - who are demanding that the government introduce the ability for firms to fire staff at will - and Lib Dem Vince Cable who has said the idea is "complete nonsense".

And here in Cornwall, the Lib Dems are opposing the idea of regional pay bargaining which would see lower pay for public sector workers despite higher living costs. The Conservative Leader of Cornwall Council said he supported the concept. At the same time, many council jobs are being transferrd to the private sector and workers are seeing their terms and conditions worsened.

In The Sun, Vince Cable writes:
"Some people think that if labour rights were stripped down to the most basic minimum, employers would start hiring and the economy would soar again. This is complete nonsense. British workers are an asset, not just a cost for company bosses. That is why I am opposed to the ideological zealots who want to encourage British firms to fire at will."
The argument about regional (or local) public sector pay is pretty clear. It is perceived that living is cheaper in Cornwall and therefore that pay can be lowered. However this ignores the high costs of public transport, high house prices and lack of access to leisure and other facilities. It would also be the beginning of a downward spiral. If public sector pay is cut then private sector pay will follow suit. Cornwall is already the poorest part of the UK and regional pay will simply exacerbate the situation. No wonder local Lib Dem MPs have come out against it and Nick Clegg has also spoken out on the issue."

But that is not the end of the concern locally. The continued transfer of core council services to the private sector is also leading to lower pay and worse conditions for staff doing the same job. It's not the case for all transferred staff, of course, and TUPE regulations should protect conditions in the initial stages. But, whilst new jobs are always welcome, we should not accept the idea that Cornwall is edging towards the lowest common denominator. We want high quality (and well paid) jobs as well as those at minimum wage.


Saturday, 19 May 2012

Great offer - shame about the publicity

Today, as Cornwall sees the Olympic Torch make its way through, all Cornwall Council car parks are free for the day. This is a great initiative which also applies to those ares (like Launceston) which the torch procession is not coming near.

The shame is that the publicity in the car parks is so terrible that many drivers have ended up paying when they didn't need to.

The first picture shows the ticket machine and information board at the Walk House car park in Launceston. Can you see the information advising people that they don't have to pay?

In fact, there are two such notices.

The first is the official version, in orange at the bottom right of the information board. It's low down, well below eye level, and the text is complex and unclear to some people.

The other notice is a completely unofficial note taped over the coin slot.

A quick check around the car parks - which was almost completely full - showed that there were six cars where the driver had paid for a ticket. I talked to three drivers in the town square who had also missed the official notice and paid for parking.

Although the council has made it quite clear that they won't be refunding drivers who paid, I do think they should be apologising for the poor official notices and undertake to improve in the future. I've also asked for an official count of the number of drivers in each town across Cornwall who have paid.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Cornish Lib Dem MPs unite against regional pay

Cornwall's Liberal Democrat MPs Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert and Dan Rogerson have made clear their opposition to varying public sector pay in different parts of the country.

Andrew, Stephen and Dan were among 22 Lib Dem MPs who wrote to the Guardian on Wednesday to oppose regional public sector pay and to welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's assurance this week that the Government would not enact regional pay variations for the public sector.

Commenting, North Cornwall's MP Dan Rogerson, said:

"Clearly the Government is doing its job by keeping public sector pay under review. However, I believe the arguments in favour of any form of regional pay to be flawed in that they take further money out of economically hard-pressed regions of the UK and inevitably help to overheat the economy around London and the South East.

"The Government is right to be working to stimulate jobs in the private sector - but it isn't necessary to change public sector pay in order for these new opportunities to come forward."

The MP for St Austell and Newquay, Stephen Gilbert, added:

"Local pay threatens to institutionalise the structural problems in the Cornish economy where we have lower than national average wages but have higher than national average costs on housing, water and fuel. We need to work to close this gap and we will not do so by a rush to the bottom in public sector pay."

The anthropomorphisation of fire

I'm looking forward to the Olympics and delighted that the first day of the torch relay is in Cornwall. It'll do a lot to show off what Cornwall has to offer and the whole event can be inspirational in lots of ways. But could we please lay off the anthropomorphisation of the flame.

Yes, the flame is symbolic and the ceremony yesterday in Greece was quite nice.

But some of the commentary is going way too far.

A few examples:

"Last night, the flame spent the night at the British Embassy in Athens." Tucked up in bed with some cocoa?

When the flame is passed from one torchbearer to another, it is referred to as "a torch kiss". Ughh!

The programme for the day refers to the torch stopping "for lunch". What exactly does it eat? A bit of kindling? Power paraffin?

I suspect that, after tomorrow, we'll all just be desperate for the games to start.

Discussing pasty tax with Nick Clegg

This morning, during his visit to Cornwall, together with Mark Muncey of the Cornish Pasty Association and Steve Gilbert MP, I had a discussion with Nick Clegg about the pasty tax.

We explained the threat to Cornish businesses of the proposed tax including the likely loss of up to 1100 jobs in the pasty industry itself and the wider supply chain as well as more than £35 million from the Cornish economy.

We also explained that the current proposal is unworkable and would lead to huge confusion. This wasn't a plea just for the pasty industry, but for bakers across the country who produce different types of savouries.

Nick was very open to the arguments that we made and receptive to the ideas being put forward. It was a constructive meeting which I hope will lead to a rethink of the proposals in government. There is no doubt that the current VAT rules are a bit of a mess with a disparity between fish and chips on the one hand and supermarket rotisserie chickens on the other. In the middle of all this, local bakeries have been caught and look set to lose either way. There is clearly an option to add VAT to any product which is kept hot and to exempt those which are simply hot as they have come out of the oven but are cooling.

The formal consultation on the proposed changes ended today and I hope that there will be a positive announcement in the near future. I think our discussion today was a positive contribution.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Launceston Mayor Making

This afternoon was the civic highlight of the year with the annual mayor making (or mayor choosing) ceremony at the town hall. Rob Tremain was elected for a second term as mayor and Dave Gordon for a second term as his deputy. Congratulations to them both.

The event brings together the great and the good of the town including representatives from many town organisations, churches and charities. There are mayors from across East Cornwall and we were joined this year by Pat Harvey, Chairman of Cornwall Council.

As well as the usual business, there was a special award for Graeme Facks Martin, one of the longest serving councillors in Cornwall. Graeme has become an Honorary Alderman of the town, a rare accolade, for his time spent on Launceston Rural District Council, North Cornwall District Council (he was the only person to serve for the entire life of the authority), South Petherwin Parish Council and Launceston Town Council.

Rob Tremain read out a list of tributes to Graeme as well as giving a potted biography. In the 1970s when the Tories were divided between the 'wets' and the 'dries' Graeme was apparently once described as being 'positively oceanic', something he took to be a compliment. Certainly I have always found him to be a particular type of Tory and someone whose opinions, particularly on housing, I greatly value. I thank him for the reference he made in his speech to my work - even if it might not have been meant entirely favourably!

Finally there was an Award of Appreciation given to the Launceston Male Voice Choir who have raised so much for charity over the years with their concerts.

Parking income in Launceston has fallen 10% under Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council is getting ten percent less from pay and display car parks in Launceston than was the situation they inherited from the former North Cornwall District Council. This is despite (or, more likely, because of) year on year overall price rises.

When Cornwall Council took over responsibility for parking in April 2009, the total income from the four pay and display car parks in the town was £183,318 a year.

In the year 2011/12, Cornwall Council took £165,307.36 - a drop of more than £18,000 or around 10%. In only one car park, the Cattle Market, is the council getting more money now than it was then.*

Given the fact that prices have risen consistently for all except the first hour, it appears that the total number of cars parking in our town (and therefore the number of visitors using shops and businesses) has dropped very dramatically.

Surely it is time for Cornwall Council to start thinking less about its cash income (a strategy which has catastrophically failed in any case) and start to think holistically about the good of our town. With the localisation of business rates, Cornwall Council will have increased interest in making sure that local shops and businesses don't close. Higher parking charges and lower footfall will therefore be biting the hand that feeds them.

One option would be for town and parish councils to take over responsibility for car parks from Cornwall Council. But Truro is insisting that ridiculous income targets must be maintained, even though they have never been achieved across Cornwall and only in a few places with individual car parks. At today's meeting, the head of parking said that such devolution is 'a non-runner' under the current circumstances.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Launceston is getting such a poor deal with its parking charges is the lack of representation on the Parking Panel. Since February 2011 there have been detailed discussions on two massive parking price rises. The only Launceston area councillor on the parking panel is Conservative Phil Parsons who represents Altarnun. Cllr Parsons did not attend a single one of the parking panel meetings during that time and today's meeting was the first he has attended since February 2011.

But even where sensible arguments are put forward at the Parking Panel, the portfolio holder, Cllr Graeme Hicks, is not around the hear them. Cllr Hicks has not attended a single meeting of the Parking Panel for the last 15 months.

* This headline figure does mask the fact that the situation in 2011/12 is better than the previous year when the overall take was just £138,878.36. 

Bizarre cabinet pronouncements on stadium decision

A couple of days ago Cornwall Council was asked to choose between two options on the stadium project. The option that got most votes was an outright rejection of the idea of any council funding. Anyone in the room would be absolutely clear that this was what those who voted were calling for.

The other option was the one I voted for - it said that there needed to be a proper business case put forward for the scheme and that the full council was entitled to see that  (and the answers to other significant questions) before taking a decision. Many of us were opposed in principle to council funding but did not feel able to rule it out without having an unbiased study in front of us.

Although a few people made the case for funding, no vote was held on that option and I suspect that if one were then it would be defeated by 90 votes to 10.

Even though my preferred option was defeated, I believe that the will of the majority should prevail and the Cabinet would be committing political suicide if they ignore it.

On the radio that evening, the Leader of the Council made the extraordinary claim that the result of the vote was unclear. I am told that there was a furious row with one advocate of the losing option who the Leader claimed had 'wrecked' the plan.

Today I received an email from Cllr Graeme Hicks which said:
"It was a very close vote and I believe the cabinet should look at this again and consider making a financial contribution to this extemely important project."
It seems extraordinary that the Cabinet should be seeking to ignore the wishes of the full council in this way. But at least Cllr Hicks made his position clear and voting during the debate. Despite it being made clear that all cabinet members could vote on the proposal with no risk of prejudicing their future decision-making capabilities, all but one of the Tory cabinet members sat on their hands. If  the council leader backs putting cash in then surely he should have proposed such a motion and voted for it.

Concern for jobs at Groundwork South West

Yesterday came the news that Groundwork South West has gone into administration with the immediate loss of 130 full-time and part-time staff.

Although based in Plymouth, Groundwork have an office in the old National School on Western Road in Launceston. I'm not yet sure what the effect will be on that operation which also houses offices for a number of small organisations, but it is clearly a loss for our local area.

Cornwall Council's £5000 coffee machine that has never made a cup

Despite preaching austerity and cuts, it seems that the message of 'we're all in it together' hasn't quite reached the fourth floor bunker at County Hall. Council bosses installed a shiny £5000 coffee machine in the new cafe a month ago, but it has yet to make a single cup - sitting there gathering dust as, according to staff, they haven't yet been trained how to use it.

Earlier this week, the authority unveiled bottles of water shipped in from Yorkshire.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Cornwall Council says NO to pasty tax

In amongst all the other debates at today's full council meeting came a strong statement from the authority in opposition to the pasty tax.

Together with my colleague Edwina Hannaford, I proposed a motion asking for the council's strong support for the measure which would threaten jobs and manufacturing industry. I pointed out that the pasty tax is unenforceable and strikes at the heart of a Cornish staple.

The council agreed with no opposition and a single abstention to the motion and will now lobby all MPs to point out the folly of the Government's proposal.

Cornwall Council new refreshments: bottled water from Yorkshire

In the old Cornwall County Council, the Liberal Democrat administration got into a lot of trouble for spending money on bottled water rather than expecting people to drink from the tap or installing simple water coolers fed by the tap.

Yet today the new Cornwall Council unveiled the far on offer from their new suppliers which includes...

bottled water from Yorkshire

I look forward to hearing the justification for that decision.

UPDATE - Cabinet member Cllr Jim Currie has promised to look into this.

Council cash for stadium roundly defeated

The stadium for Cornwall project suffered a major blow today as councillors voted by 55 votes to 46 against any idea of public funding for the project.

The debate lasted all morning and heard from a wide variety of speakers. It's probably fair to say that those unequivocally in favour of the stadium were pretty few and far between. Indeed, no proposal to recommend approval of funding was ever made - perhaps fearful of a major defeat.

Instead, there was a proposal moved early in the debate by MK's Dick Cole to defer the decision for more information. Some will argue that we have spent long enough on the subject and that we need a decision now. However most of the information to come out to date has been so biased one way or the other that it's impossible to understand what is true and what fantasy. And worrying tales of lack of sewerage infrastructure, dodgy planning deals and lack of finances were also mentioned.

One of the most telling contributions came from Tory Phil Tucker. He said that the proposal was like a Nigerian email scam. They are asking for £10 million of public funding now, but shortly there will come a request for another £5 million to complete the project. And if we don't pay that then we risk losing the initial £10m. The process is endless and we end up paying more and more. And for all that the proponents of a stadium might say this isn't true, we have to reflect that as recently as a month ago we were being assured that no council money would ever be needed.

The Chief Executive was on the radio last week to suggest that Cornwall has spare capacity in its budget for such a project. But even that is not the whole case. It is like having an unused overdraft facility. The bank gives us permission to borrow the money, but we have to consider whether it is affordable (I understand the interest charges would be £800k or more a year) and, even if it is, should we be spending our money in this way when there are many other pressing projects. Councillors across the divide pointed to schemes in their area which desperately need investment.

I have always been against using any public money for this project. But I do understand that a case could be made for an unashamed community stadium not just in Cornwall, but for Cornwall. Such a case has never been put to councillors as the developers and council administration has tried to hoodwink us with made up claims of jobs and spend. Simply calling it a stadium for Cornwall doesn't make it so. I believe that we deserve to hear that case put to us as well as to have all the other claims and counter claims settled. For that reason, I voted today in favour of Dick Cole's motion for deferral.

The remaining question is how much notice the cabinet will take of this vote. In a modern day authority, it is for the Leader and Cabinet to take the key decisions and they would have the right to decide to approve the funding in this case. One person has suggested that the cabinet might decide to regard all those who abstained as having voted in favour. The trouble with that is that there were many councillors who weren't attending at all - to make an assumption as to how they would have voted is anti-democratic in the extreme. And with the number of voices raised in support of council funding for a stadium today able to be counted on the fingers of one hand, would they dare?

UPDATE: Three other councillors from different parties (and who all voted the in favour of the motion) have blogged. They are Dick Cole, Andrew Wallis and Jude Robinson.

Clegg says no to regional pay

Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg has rejected the idea of regional pay scales in the public sector. The idea has been proposed by Tory Chancellor George Osborne.

The problem with regional pay levels is how they are calculated. Whilst some aspects of living in Cornwall are cheaper than south east England, many other factors make it more expensive to live here including the costs of public transport and house prices relative to wages. Such a complex calculation didn't seem to be in the mind of the Chancellor who looked at the move as a quick way to reduce the pay bill.

Speaking yesterday, Nick Clegg said in response to a question on regional pay bargaining:
“There is going to be no regional pay system, that is not going to happen.”

Returning officers set to lose fees for poor performance

Returning officers at elections who fail to complete their job properly will no longer be entitled to claim their entire fee. That's a proposal being put forward as part of the new Electoral Registration Bill which also introduces individual registration to combat fraud.

At present, returning officers are paid a large fee for their work. They would suggest that it is a fee which is justified given the high profile of the role and the responsibilities involved. It is a role which is usually filled by the chief executive of the local authority and the fees often range between £12,000 and £20,000.

But what seems off-kilter is that the post-holders are still entitled to the full amount even if they deliver a less than perfect election. In recent elections around the UK we have seen missing marked registers, wrongly tallied vote numbers and even ballot boxes which have gone uncounted.

I have worked with many returning officers in my career and, sadly, they have not all been excellent. The role - and fees - have sometimes been picked up by someone who doesn't know the job and is blind to the complexities involved.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Liberal Democrats pledge money back for missed bin collections

Cornish Liberal Democrats have today announced a manifesto commitment to refund residents who have their waste collection missed. If we are in control of the authority after next May's elections, we will commit to giving a £1 reduction on the next council tax bill to any household whose waste or recycling is still not collected 48 hours after they report a missed collection.

The move to a new waste contract has been a tale of incompetence from the current Tory-led administration. Residents across Cornwall have suffered from missed collections, new recycling containers not being delivered and the Council has failed spectacularly to deal with the number of calls and emails from an understandably exasperated public.

We know that picking up your bins is one of the most basic services provided by the council and one which every single household relies on. That is why we are determined to put right the failures of the current regime.

We pledge that, if you report your black bag or recycling collection has been missed, we will apologise properly and collect it within 48 hours. If we fail to do that, we'll give you £1 off your next year's council tax.

Cornish Liberal Democrats believe that delivering high quality basic services at an affordable price is the first priority of any local authority. Our manifesto, which will be unveiled over the coming months in the run up to next year's election, will put the needs of the people of Cornwall first.

Free parking in Launceston this Saturday

This coming Saturday there will be free parking in Cornwall Council car parks in Launceston. The giveaway is part of the council's celebration of the passing of the Olympic Torch through Cornwall on its way to London.

Even though Launceston and North Cornwall have been missed off the Olympic Torch route, I hope that it is an inspirational day and brings in many thousands of visitors.

Even if you don't go to see the torch, you can still take advantage of free parking in all Cornwall Council car parks in Launceston on Saturday. And if you haven't yet got your Love Launceston loyalty card then you can pick one up from any of the participating shops and make some great savings.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Love Launceston loyalty card launch day

Today was the launch day for the Love Launceston loyalty card and I spent all day in the town square handing the cards out and explaining the scheme to locals and visitors. I was with Paul and Jeremy Loft from Gillards who have been the main organisers of the scheme and fellow councillor Phil Parsons.

The scheme is an attempt by the towns traders to encourage people to come shopping in the town centre. At the last count, 66 local shops and businesses have started offering discounts or special deals to their customers on production of their loyalty card. These are typically 10% off or buy one, get something else free - a decent discount which would more then compensate for the cost of parking in the town (which is still too high).

The economy and other factors (like parking) are hitting town traders hard and this is their attempt to fight back. All four local Cornwall Councillors have helped by putting money into the scheme to cover the start up costs alongside Barclays and Specsavers and the Chamber of Commerce.

A bit of a cold and windy day turned into a bright and sunny one and the town square was packed with people who knew about the scheme and were eager to claim their card as well as those who didn't know about the scheme but wanted to hear more. We talked to more than 750 people today and we'll be doing the whole thing again tomorrow. But from 8.30am when the first card was used in Bray Farm Shop, people have been taking and using the cards and claiming their deals.

Also present today was the Tweetbus, a vehicle that goes around Cornwall promoting local businesses via twitter. Many thanks to them for coming along and chatting to local people and businesses.

If you didn't get a card today, please come along tomorrow. If you can't manage that, cards can be claimed from all the participating businesses.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

BREAKING - Stadium DOES want our cash - UPDATED

After months of saying that the proposed stadium for Cornwall would be constructed without and taxpayer subsidy, it seems that both developers and Cornwall Council have been leading us up the garden path.

The developers have approached Cornwall Council asking for money to fund the project and it is being considered as an emergency item for the full council agenda next Tuesday.

At the last full council meeting in March, the council agreed to a Conservative motion that any decision on subsidy for the stadium - either in direct cash terms or indirectly - would need to come back to full council for approval. At the time, this was thought just to be a shot across the bows of the Tory leadership which seems out of step with their own backbenchers on this issue.

Now the Chairman of the Council has received a request from the Leader to add an extraordinary item to the agenda. Although I oppose taxpayer subsidy for a stadium which I fear will have little or no community benefit, I think that it should be debated on Tuesday. Otherwise the Cabinet of ten is likely to just make the decision anyway and ignoring the remaining 113 of us. If the majority of councillors agree to the request then, as a democrat, I'd accept that.

More to come...

UPDATE 1: It seems that Cornwall Council has confirmed that there will be a debate at full council next week. A statement has gone out to the press but, for the second time in a week, members have been kept in the dark.

UPDATE 2: Scott Mann, the former Tory Deputy Leader who resigned that position over claims of a secret plan to put public money into the statement has taken to twitter to highlight the disparity between claims then and now.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Tory MP and cabinet members break ranks over waste fiasco

The Cornwall Council spin machine was out in full force at today's cabinet meeting with claims being made that Cory are now collecting more than 99% of waste and recycling*. The trouble is that no one really believes these statistics any more and, even if they are true, it still means that around 5,000 bags a week are being left on Cornwall's kerbs.

As it was not a formal matter on the agenda, Tory council leader Alec Robertson said there would be no debate but his own colleague, Independent Neil Burden insisted in relating the catalogue of failures in his patch. "If 99% is being collected then the other 1% must all be in my division," he said.

And it's not just Neil who is causing problems on this issue. Conservative Cabinet Member Armand Toms has joined SE Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray in holding a public meeting to discuss the fiasco.

So no debate today and it appears that the famously 'open and transparent' council won't be releasing any monitoring data on the new contract and the number of missed collections. Stats on the percentage of waste sent to landfill and so on will be released on a monthly basis as before. But nothing on the failure of Cory to actually pick up the rubbish in the first place.

At the same time, the claim was being made that everyone in Cornwall, except a few places in the former Carrick, have had their new recycling equipment. At this, even Indie Housing boss Mark Kaczmarek was shaking his head in disbelief. Clearly there are problems in Kerrier too.

To his credit, Julian German repeated his apology for missed collections and the call centre problems. He also said that the council were looking at the contract penalties they can impose on Cory. We'll expect a lot more detail on these.

No one believed the council when it claimed that there was no real problem. Now it is claiming that there was a problem but it is all sorted and no one believes this either. With so many Tories and Independent cabinet members breaking ranks, isn't it time Cornwall Council finally started telling the truth about the waste fiasco?

*A word on the 99% figure. It's crap. A couple of weeks ago the claim was made that only 1.5% of collections had been missed. That was based on the number of people who successfully got through to the call centre to log a complaint. But only 4000 out of 22000 calls a day were getting through and even then, many thousands of homes have disappeared from the council's postcode database and so can't be logged. Some spin wizard in the fourth floor bunker flipped this number to claim that 98.5% of collections were being made. Now that number has risen to 99% but it's still as flimsy as it was before.

UPDATE - I appear to have caused some consternation in the comments with an aside pointing out that whilst Cllr Steve Double is Cabinet member in charge of the waste fiasco, his wife Anne is office manager for Sheryll Murray MP who is organising a meeting to highlight the failures in her patch. My apologies for any offence caused.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A double win for Nadine Dorries?

Could the boundary changes (including Devonwall) be delayed until after the next election? That's one fascinating idea being mooted within the coalition according to Channel 4 News' Gary Gibbon.

He suggests that the right wingers are causing such a fuss within the Conservative Party that the coalition's pledge to introduce Lords reform this term might have to be put on the back burner. But this would be a problem for the Lib Dems who would rightly point to the fact that Lords reform was in both party manifestos and in the coalition agreement. So the Lib Dems would need a favour in return and the delay in reducing the size of the House of Commons (and such unpopular measures as Devonwall) might well be it.

I've suggested since the start that the boundary changes may well not happen and pausing them until after the next General Election could well be it. After all, if Labour are in power after 2015 they won;t be pushing forward a measure they think is unfair.

The only problem I have with this idea is that it is a double win for whinging Tory right-winger Nadine Dorries. Not only is she one of the most vocal critics of Lords reform. but she also hates the boundary changes which would see her Mid Bedfordshire seat disappear.

Clegg and Cameron promise to "give it 110%"

Nick Clegg and David Cameron's relaunch in a tractor factory clearly wasn't designed to get the hard left on board. Instead it looked like they had been learning their lines from Frank Bruno, or a particularly out of his depth football caretaker manager.

"I know results have gone against us in the last few weeks, but the lads have promised to give it 110% til the end of the season."

What with Nick Clegg's dodgy estuary English accent and the pledges to 'redouble our efforts' (despite a few weeks ago saying they were doing all they can already), it may as well have been scripted by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse.

Cabinet minds are closed on 'right to buy' debate

It seems that ordinary Cornwall Council members are being ignored once again as the leadership bunker avoids any attempt at consultation over a significant issue of concern to lots of residents.

The issue this time is council housing and the Government's proposed new 'right to buy' legislation. There are some pretty strong views both for an against this proposal - as demonstrated by my debate with Sarah Newton MP on the local Daily Politics show a couple of weeks ago. But all these were ignored as the council chose to send in a technocratic response and merely copied it to councillors for information.

With the current 'Leader and Cabinet' system of governance, the final decision on what the council's response should be was always going to be restricted to just the executive. But on an issue as important as this, it would have been appropriate to allow a discussion in full council next week on the issue and to incorporate some of the views of members in the response. My Lib Dem colleagues Geoff Brown and Nigel Pearce have proposed a motion for debate anyway and I hope that it elicits a range of views.

Alternatively, Cllr Kaczmarek could have presented a draft response to last week's meeting of the Communities scrutiny committee - which oversees housing. But, despite having a number of important debates on the agenda, the right to buy wasn't one of them and Cllr Kaczmarek decided that another engagement was more pressing than explaining his thoughts on these policy matters.

What annoys me the most is that I know Cllr Kaczmarek has strong views on the issue of the right to buy. One of the key issues is the likely diminution of the council housing stock. With 23,000 families on the housing list, I would think Cornwall's first priority should be finding a roof for these people, not selling off the houses we have. There are claims that the authority could replace every house sold, but I know Cllr Kaczmarek doesn't think this is possible. There is also concern about where replacement houses would be (selling a house in Bude and replacing it in Penzance doesn't really help Bude).

I hope that the Council Chairman allows a debate on this motion next Tuesday. I'd welcome the chance to hear from those who take a different stance from myself. Unfortunately, for the cabinet, it seems that their minds are closed.

Love Launceston, Love Loyalty launch this Friday

Launceston's new loyalty card launches on Friday and the list of opening offers from shops and businesses in town have been announced.

You can find the whole list here, but it includes many money off options which will save you money if you do your shopping in the town. Many thanks to all the businesses who have signed up so far - there are more on the way. The offers themselves will change roughly every month - although some of the most popular ones will stay the same.

Joining the scheme is totally free and couldn't be easier. Cards will be available from all participating businesses from Friday and there will be a promotional event in the Town Square on both Friday and Saturday where you can also get hold of a card. Just look out for one of us wearing a bright yellow t-shirt.

The scheme is the brainchild of a small group led by Paul Loft, the former Chair of the Chamber of Commerce. Paul has secured sponsorship from a number of businesses and regular coverage from the Cornish and Devon Post. Together with my fellow councillors Sasha, Adam and Phil, I've been happy to give a grant from my community chest fund to the start up costs.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cory didn't realise there were narrow roads in Launceston

Yesterday, some residents of Dunheved Road had their black bag rubbish collected for the first time in over a month. The bags had piled up to more than five feet high.

When I asked the council to explain the reason for the problem, I was told that the new contractor - Cory - wasn't aware of how many properties (like this one) needed a narrow vehicle to access.

To my mind, this is yet another example of the incompetence of both Cory management and Cornwall Council when it came to implementing this new contract. Surely as part of the pre-contract negotiations, the bidders should have been told (or found out) how many properties needed some sort of special treatment. Cory appear to have assumed that almost everywhere could be collected using 'normal' trucks. I know they have had to buy new vehicles to cope with places like Looe, and it appears they will have to buy more for parts of Launceston.

Luckily, the most horrendous problems now seem to be being fixed, but there are still occasional problems across Cornwall. If you have suffered a missed collection or still don't have your recycling bags or box, please email or call me on 07984 64138.