Sunday, 30 September 2012

Council Tax benefit and Cornwall Council's profitable proposal

Council tax benefit is changing across the UK. Responsibility for the scheme has been passed to local authorities along with a cut in the overall amount to fund it. With the Government making it clear that pensioners must be exempt, working age recipients are set to see a big drop in benefit. Crucially though, it looks like Cornwall wants to go further and their proposed scheme will actually be making a profit for the council.

The scale of the cut in the amount Cornwall has received is £6 million. The proposal from the administration is to impose an across the board cut of 30% on the amount that non-pensioner recipients get. And, they have proposed to cut other entitlements which will also save more money. The total amount they will raise? Nearly £8 million - in effect, making a profit out of cutting benefits for some of Cornwall's poorest residents.

Steve Double - the cabinet member in charge of this proposal - told me that he expected the collection rate to fall and to need to raise more than £6 million in cuts as a result. He couldn't put a figure on this collection shortfall - but almost £2 million seems hugely excessive.

Cornwall Council is consulting on a scheme made up like this:

- Across the board 30% cut affecting 26,358 non pensioner households and generating a £7,213,488 saving

- Remove the second adult reduction - 259 households - £55,661 saving
- Cap at Band D - 498 households - £168,424 saving
- No backdating - 782 households - £73,981 saving
- Reduction in capital levels to £6k - 291 households - £220,005 saving
- No underlying entitlement - 303 households - £36,340 saving

It is clear that the government's grant reduction has forced councils to make unpalatable cuts. But why is Cornwall Council going so much further than they need to with their proposed scheme?

Following the consultation period, the Cabinet will make a recommendation in November before a final decision is taken by the full council in December.

Not great news for health care in Cornwall (or Labour on the NHS)

The reputation of private companies involved in the NHS took a bit of a battering yesterday as it was revealed that Serco, the firm which provides out of hours GP care across Cornwall, sometimes only had one GP on duty for 535,000 people.

The Primary Care Trust, which commissioned Serco, has said it has taken action to address the problem and numbers won't fall that low again.

But then, it's not just the private sector which has failed Cornwall. Three cottage hospitals have had to close down beds because they can't get the staff to run them, according to the BBC.

Local NHS managers are determined to press ahead with plans to introduce a system of 'regional' (ie lower) pay for workers in the south west. But if they can't recruit enough staff on national pay rates, what hope is there once lower regional rates are adopted?

And also yesterday, on the first day of the Labour Party conference, the party seemed to get in a bit of a tizzy about what exactly it's policy is on the NHS Bill. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham seemed clear enough. "We will repeal the bill. Full stop" he tweeted. But then his boss, Ed Milliband, said quite categorically that they wouldn't in remarks to reporters. Not exactly clear.

Friday, 28 September 2012

New parking charges for Launceston proposed

Following the public meeting held in the Town Hall a couple of months ago, Cornwall Council's Parking Panel has agreed recommendations for new parking rates for Launceston from next April.

The option they are recommending to Cabinet is for all Cornwall Council owned car parks (ie Walk House, Tower Street, Pannier Market and Cattle Market):

1 hr - rate abolished, minimum charge for 2 hours
Up to 2 hours - £1
2-3 hours - £3.30
3-4 hours - £4.80 in Cattle Market only
All day - £5 in Cattle Market, £5.80 in Walk House

The biggest change is the move from charging 50p for the first hour and then charging £1.60 for two hours to a single 'up to two hours' rate. This option was preferred by a small majority of those who returned consultation forms. On the positive side, it encourages people coming to town to stay longer. On the negative side, it means that the minimum charge for parking (for those who only want to stay a few minutes) rises by 66%.

It should be noted that the parking panel was constrained in the options they were allowed to recommend. Despite the overwhelming view of the public meeting being that Cornwall Council should stop treating car parks as a cash cow, the panel had to make a recommendation based on 'cost neutral' options. However, even that is a misleading term as many people believe that far more cars will use our car parks if the costs drop - meaning more profit for the council. Cornwall is already the second highest earning council in the UK outside London from parking.

On the subject of season tickets, the panel chose to support the trial currently taking place and is not going to make a recommendation before seeing the outcome of the trial.

These are just recommendations at this stage. They go to the Cabinet to make the final decision which then goes out to public consultation.

Alex's Phone Not Working

Sorry to report that my iphone has died and I'm getting a new one. It does mean that I will not be able to answer calls or receive texts until at least Tuesday. I will, however, still be available by email.

If you have sent me a text or tried to call in the last 24 hours but have not received a reply, I didn't get your message so please email.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Jim Currie's explosive email on privatisation

Jim Currie is the Cornwall Council cabinet member in charge of finances and corporate support. He's also deputy leader of the council and the former leader of the Conservatives on the old County Council. So when he states his unease with a flagship council policy, he deserves to be listened to.

In an explosive email to all Cornwall councillors this morning, Jim has said that he is still deeply skeptical about the whole privatisation (or Joint Venture in council speak) proposal. He suggests that each of the new jobs created by the partnership could cost as much as a million pounds. He talks about secrecy and legal threats and a lack of evidence.

But Jim's key area of concern is procurement. The proposal is that this service - which ensures that Cornwall gets the best service levels and value for money whenever it buys in other services - will be privatised. Jim asks, quite reasonably, how we can get best value in the future if the private company is procuring itself.

You can watch Jim's speech at the last council meeting in the Cornwall webcasting facility. Use this link and then scroll though on the right hand side until you reach 14.14 (3hrs.44.36 into the broadcast). He has sent all members of a copy of that speech but then added the following footnotes:

"The JV (joint venture) process has been described as a year and a half of smoke and mirrors (and secrecy) sorting out £22m a year contract followed by a smash and grab raid of a few weeks imposing a £436 million a year contract for procurement. I would agree with this description since I was on leave when it happened.

The correct procedure to challenge the Cabinet decision on JV was a call-in by Scrutiny. Indeed there are 7 situations that can each trigger a call-in and this decision had six of them. Unfortunately the Single Issue Panel consisted of the main players from Scrutiny who were baulked by competitive dialogue secrecy and the speed of the procurement extension to the contract. The reports to Cabinet were excellent but done in record time. Procurement which is 95% of the Equity was not identified.

The promise of jobs in six to seven years time indeed may well happen. Unfortunately, information freely available to all members would indicate a distinct possibility that each job could cost the Cornish taxpayer one million pounds. At that rate the jobs will continue to happen so long as members push up Council Tax as their main involvement.

Not a jury in the land would endorse the annual delegation of twice the size of all Council Tax revenue being described as a purely executive (Cabinet) function.

The Competitive Dialogue process has been backed up by secrecy, loads of anecdotal comments including filibuster and threats of legal action but no real evidence. Unfortunately it takes ages to filter out the direction of travel so members are getting a kicking if they venture into the minefield. .

Procurement has been recognised by the Local Government Association as a priority and they are setting up their own school. There are several Local Government Consortia and together with the LGA (safety in numbers) we would not be at such a risk as with current JV proposals.

Since the 4th of September I have seen or heard nothing to change my views on the massive risk involved with the size of this venture.

Jim Currie"
Comparisons have been made already with the devastating speech made by Geoffrey Howe in helping to bring down Margaret Thatcher. I'm not sure that Jim would deserve the 'dead sheep' analogy, but when one of the main figures in your administration writes in this way, then things are looking grim for the Leader.

Cory failing Ridgegrove residents

The photo on the left shows the state of one of the Ridgegrove Estate bin areas this morning. Fly-tipped material including a fridge, a bed base and some wooden shelving means that it is impossible to get to the bins themselves. As a result, residents have left their rubbish bags as close to the bins as possible - but prey to vermin and cats.

The sad thing is that these bins were emptied by Cory yesterday. But the fly-tipped stuff was just left where it was. Of course, there is no way that the regular dustcart can take away fridges and the like. There is a special team which deals with fly-tipping and they investigate to see if they can find out who is responsible and they fine them when they do. But Cory have a duty to ensure that the bin areas are left clean, tidy and usable and this one clearly isn't. If this was a one off problem then I would have some sympathy - but local residents have to live with this week after week.

The Ridgegrove Estate gets two bin collections per week - on Wednesdays and Fridays. I have already complained that these days are too close together and the bins are overflowing by Tuesday, but Cory claim that changing the collection days would be inconvenient.

The long-term solution remains a move to weekly doorstep collections and these will be implemented when the gas works have finished.

But in the mean time, those people who fly-tip should realise that they are encouraging rats and litter and Cory need to ensure that they are doing their job properly.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Could you play a part in Launceston Town Council's future?

Launceston Town Council has two vacancies following the sad death of Eric Chapman and the decision of Connie Geach to stand down. Would you or anyone you know be the right person to help guide the organisation into the future?

The vacancies are about to be formally announced and, if ten electors request one, a by-election will be held to fill each vacancy. If there is no by-election then the remaining members of the town council will fill the vacancies by co-opting a willing volunteer.

Eric Chapman was elected to represent the North ward and Connie Geach for South ward - so any by-elections or co-options would be run completely separately. The term of office for town councillors runs out in May and elections will be held to fill all 16 positions alongside the Cornwall Council elections on May 2nd. At that time there will be a re-drawing of the boundaries to create a seven member 'South' ward (slightly different from the current boundaries), a seven member 'Central' ward (including most of the current North) and a two member 'North' ward which would include just the Lanstephan estate and half of St Stephens Hill.

So if you think you could play a part in the long term future of the town council, now is the time to do something about it. Most of the people on the current town council were elected as 'independents' - but many of them have also stood for district or county elections under a party banner. There is also one member of the town council who stood under a party banner. So whether you are a supporter of a particular party or have no political affiliation, the town council could be for you.

If anyone who is at all interested wants to talk about standing, please contact the Town Clerk or talk to other members of the Town Council. If anyone wants to talk to me, I would be happy to help them.

The Leader writes...

Each fortnight, Cornwall Council's leader writes a column in the local papers. The one that will appear this week is more notable than most. Here are some extracts:
"I want to make it absolutely plain that I am in total agreement with the Government’s approach on tackling the national debt crisis"

"It is, therefore, inevitable that further reductions will be required from local government."

"I have every hope and belief that by continuing to implement creative efficiencies and opportunities, such as those represented by our Shared Services Strategic Partnership proposal, by fully exploiting other opportunities to integrate with our public sector partners, such as health and police, by taking opportunities to generate more income ourselves, such as green energy generation, and, if necessary, some reasonable increases in local council tax, we can continue to protect most of those council services that we all highly value."
The last one is an 81 word sentence, which at least proves he writes these messages himself. But the key messages appear to be that Cornwall's Conservatives are fully signed up to Plan A austerity, envisage making further front-line service cuts and charging taxpayers more for those services that remain.

Dear Apple and Orange - you are in danger of losing a customer

Congratulations Apple and Orange, your new operating system is losing you a customer.

Last Saturday I got a message on my phone (a four month old iphone 4S) to say that I should upgrade to the new ios6 operating system. I had read the comments about the problems with the mapping software but figured that I could live with that problem and so I pressed the upgrade button. Big mistake.

Since that time my battery life has been cut by at least 50% to the extent that it needs re-charging during the course of a working day. And, in addition, I can't make or receive a call without losing signal and being cut off within 30 seconds. Even when a call starts with a full five bars of signal, it will disappear to nothing and cut me off within 30 seconds which makes it a bit difficult to do my job.

So today I called Orange. They told me that the problem with my signal might be because the new EE carrier isn't working yet and I should manually select Orange as a different carrier. Brilliant. They upgrade me to a system that doesn't work.

Unfortunately, even that didn't work and the phone tries to shove me back onto the EE signal at every opportunity. I asked about returning to the old operating system and was told that this is a strictly one way process.

And what of the battery life? Well Orange seem to think that my handset magically developed a hardware fault at exactly the same moment as I upgraded the system. Not so sure about that one. So then they suggested I call Apple.

After the usual ten minutes of menu options and speech recognition lady, I'm put on hold. And then they cut me off.

I'll give it one more go to try to call them tomorrow morning. If not, I'll be returning my otherwise lovely iphone and cancelling my contract.

Two good decisions from Lib Dem conference

The Liberal Democrats conference is unique among the big three in that ordinary members are actually allowed to speak and vote on policy issues. Two that have special relevance for us in Cornwall relate to regional pay and the proposed planning changes.

On regional pay, a motion put forward both by Lib Dems in Wales and in South East Cornwall opposed any proposal for regional pay. Among the speakers was my colleague Edwina Hannaford who reiterated the case we made in proposing a similar motion to Cornwall Council. She said that it would lead to less experienced public sector staff and a pay cut for those we keep. Public sector staff help to keep local businesses going outside the tourist season and, whilst some aspects of living costs are lower here, many - including housing and transport costs - are much higher.

I'm delighted that the motion opposing regional and local pay was overwhelmingly carried.

Today, the Party has been debating a motion opposed to the Government's proposed relaxation of planning law. The issue that has dominated the coverage so far is all about allowing people to build bigger extensions and conservatories without planning permission. But what matters most to me is that the Government is also seeking to relax the requirement for developers to provide affordable housing and community contributions known as section 106. In Cornwall we have more than 25,000 families on the housing waiting list. They need more affordable homes to be built and if the government lessens the obligations on developers then these people will not get the homes they need for a much longer period.

Sadly, conference votes are not binding on the Government, but I hope they provide a much stronger hand for Lib Dem ministers to play when negotiating with their Conservative colleagues.

TRAC project update

Today's Cornish and Devon Post carries a long and, in part, misleading letter on the subject of the TRAC project. The subject is a serious one and I thought it important to give a reply.

The original TRAC project was one which was supported by all local councillors. It envisaged an off-road trail from the Tamar to Egloskerry with the steam railway extended out to Egloskerry. Unfortunately, the railway extension had to be dropped because the council is not legally allowed to use its powers in order to benefit a private company. However, I still want to see the extension happen in due course and have been clear that in my view the council must not do anything which would permanently block the railway's expansion.

The second key concern is over the amount of on-road trail, due to the inability of the council to do a deal with a landowner. Whilst regrettable, I don't think that the entire trail should be abandoned because some of it is on-road. Having the trail means that we can continue to work with the landowner to try to do a deal and move it off-road in the future. In the meantime, the council will put in extra signage and passing places and ensure that the hedges along that stretch are cut back more often.

There are other issues of concern such as the crossing of the main road in town and how far to the East the trail will extend and these are being worked on too.

At the end of the day, I would share concerns that this trail will not deliver everything we had hoped. But I would rather see an imperfect trail that can be improved on in the future than to abandon this project altogether. The letter writer seems to think that local councillors can always get exactly what we want. Sadly, this is not the case.

Local councillors and the project team have organised a number of public meetings on the subject of the trail and will continue to do so. In the meantime, if anyone wishes to meet to discuss the project then I would suggest they get in touch to ask to do so rather than throw mud from the sidelines.

This is a project which is constantly changing and there are meetings which are happening all the time. I've been involved in a lot of these and have avoided commenting publicly whilst the situation was flexible and until I had all the facts as things currently stand. As soon as I did have the information I gave a report to the town council, a summary of which is in today's paper.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Ridgegrove Lighting

There has been a lot of concern recently among residents on the Ridgegrove Estate about their failed streetlighting. This was first reported on September 4th both to the council and to me. Yet the lights are still not working.

When I was first told about the problem, I immediately called the council to ensure that it had been properly logged as a problem. I told them that lights were out in all three streets on the estate.

A week later and I was still getting calls to report streetlights not working and so I called again... and again... and again. The trouble is that street light faults are noted by the Council's call centre, which passes the complaints on to the streetlighting team, which then passes them on to Western Power, who then instruct one of their contractors to fix it. That's a very long chain to follow - particularly when members of the public can only get hold of the first link and there is no provision for automatically reporting back on progress.

Having spoken to Western Power today, I am told that they were only told by Cornwall Council about the fault on the 11th September and thought they had fixed the problem within 24 hours. The trouble is that it seems that only a section of lighting on the estate was reported to them as being faulty.

The good news is that Western Power have been asked to re-visit the estate today to check all the lighting in all parts. Hopefully they can fix it quickly.

But for the future, I am asking the council to shorten the fault reporting chain and to ensure that people who do submit reports are called back to give them progress reports. They have agreed that this is an issue and they are looking at how they can do so.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Ooh, a gong

I'm not at Lib Dem conference this year - too much going on in Cornwall and, sadly, it's a very expensive week away - but last night I won an award at the annual Blog of the Year bash.

The awards have been going for some time. They are hosted by Liberal Democrat Voice, the site created for and run by party activists. The categories include best new blog, best use of e-campaigning, best blog by an elected person, best non-party liberal blog and blog of the year.

Together with lots of others, I was shortlisted for the best use of e-campaigning campaign for the Say No to the Pasty Tax campaign. I wasn't the only person behind this, of course - it was a campaign run on many fronts by people both within and outside the Lib Dems. The winner though was Bears for Belarus, a campaign run by Liberal Youth to highlight the shameful nature of the last remaining European dictatorship.

But it was better luck for me in the Tim Garden Award given to the best blog by a Lib Dem holding public office. In this category I was up against International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone, Bristol West MP Stephen Williams and Suffolk parish councillor Mark Valladares. This is actually the second time I've won this award - so I'm happy to be recognised for continuing to get this blog right.

The pic above isn't me of course - it's fellow blogger Paul Walter, who co-edits Lib Dem Voice, originally from Bude, who picked up the award on my behalf.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Cornwall Council to debate motion of no confidence in Leader

A special meeting of Cornwall Council has been called to debate a motion of no confidence in Cllr Alec Robertson as Leader of the Council on 16th October.

The Leader is the only elected person on the Council who can be sacked in this way. Cabinet members are appointed directly by the Leader and their removal is his or her prerogative.

The special council meeting comes as a result of a petition by at least 41 councillors - one third of the council. I was one of those who signed it because I am concerned about the anti-democratic nature of the administration recently. In particular, the decision by the Cabinet to press ahead with their privatisation scheme despite a vote by a majority of councillors against it.

If the Leader and Cabinet system is to work then those in charge have to listen to the will of the majority of councillors. The Liberal Democrats have taken a position of opposition at the council because we didn't win a majority at the last elections. There is quite a lot we don't agree with in what the council has done, but we accept their right to do it. But when the full council - all 123 councillors, representing the whole of Cornwall, debates an issue and comes down against the Cabinet, we think that the Cabinet should listen.

The debate on 16th October is not a foregone conclusion. Even though I signed the petition, I want to give the Leader the chance to explain his actions and to say how he intends to lead in the future. I know that there are Conservatives (and many independents) who are also unsure about Cllr Robertson's leadership and will think likewise.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Royal Mail DON'T say sorry (UPDATED)

I had a call from head office this morning to tell me that they would like to apologise for giving me misleading information before. They have discovered what they refer to as 'management issues' in the Launceston Delivery Office and tell me they have taken the appropriate action. They now accept that there have been problems with local deliveries and they are taking action to put them right. They are, hopefully, sending me an email with an apology in it and I trust that this will be an apology to all residents who have suffered postal delays, not just to me for providing me with wrong information.

That's all well and good, but I am told by local delivery staff that this management action is not to provide the desperately needed extra delivery staff, but to suspend a local manager. The local staff tell me that this local manager is not to blame and that the fault lies with people up the line who are refusing to provide enough staff to cover the rounds. Some staff are currently working almost double their contracted hours and it is still not enough.

Whilst I'm grateful for the apology and glad that Royal Mail appear now to be taking this issue seriously, it doesn't yet appear that they have grasped that the basic problem is that they are not providing enough staff on the ground.

UPDATE - The email has arrived and is reproduced below. Sadly it doesn't actually contain an apology. Royal Mail simply say they were sorry to hear that customers had raised concerns. I've emailed back to suggest that they might like to actually consider an apology.

Dear Cllr Folkes

It was good to speak to you earlier.

As we discussed Royal Mail is heavily regulated by an independent body, Ofcom, and our Quality of Service (by postcode) is a key indicator to how Royal Mail is performing. We take seriously any concerns that are raised by our customers in relation to performance. Thus I was sorry to hear that customers had raised concerns about the service they were receiving in the Launceston area recently.

As a result of our conversation an internal investigation was carried out. From the findings of the investigation it would appear there were some performance management issues at the delivery office during the week commencing Monday 3 September. As a result Royal Mail is taking the necessary steps to ensure service is restored.

I hope this answers your questions and should you require any further information do let me know.

Best wishes

Michael Hogg
Public Affairs Manager
Royal Mail Group
100 Victoria Embankment, London, EC4Y 0HQ

Nick Clegg says sorry for tuition fees broken pledge (remixed version)

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Launceston Driving Test Centre on the move

Launceston's driving test centre will shortly be on the move, but the signs are that it won't be going too far.

A week or so ago, the Driving Standards Agency sent out letters saying that they were being kicked out of their current base on Western Road at the end of January. This is because the main tenant there - The Department of Work and Pensions - has served them notice. I don't yet know what plans they have for the site, but we are asking.

The DSA said that it was looking for an alternative site and I learned that this came down to two options:

- Moving to one of the Sheers Barton Barns on the road to Lawhitton
- Merging with the Bodmin test centre and moving to new premises at Halfords in Bodmin.

Clearly, from a Launceston point of view, keeping the test centre near the town is the preference. With all driving instructors conducting some lessons in and around the test venue, local Launceston learners faced the prospect of minimum lesson times jumping from one hour to two. No doubt the extra time could have been profitably used learning dual carriageway driving, but it would still mean increased costs at a time when the price of passing your test is going up and up.

I'm therefore glad to hear that it looks like the Lawhitton option has been chosen. I hope that the DSA is able to make this happen.

Council consults on two new crossings for Launceston

Cornwall Council is consulting on two new pedestrian crossings of the A388 in Launceston. As local residents will know, the first of these was scheduled for the last financial year and so is more than 6 months behind already. The second was meant to be in place this financial year. But it's better late than never!

The first crossing will be a controlled 'puffin' style crossing on Western Road just up from the junction with Westgate Street.

The second will be an informal 'pedestrian refuge' type crossing near the junction with Station Road. As part of these works, the pavement will be made wider on the town side of the road.

Whilst I think both crossings would be a considerable improvement on the current situation, it means that the crossing at the lights at Newport is being dropped. Engineers have claimed that adding a pedestrian phase to these lights would increase the maximum waiting time from about 3 minutes to as much as 20-30 at peak times. I'm afraid I can't quite believe that and have asked officers to look again.

The reason I'm still keen to see a light controlled crossing at Newport is because it is far safer and because it is integral to the TRAC trail from Polson to Egloskerry. Not having a light controlled crossing could make the trail very difficult for cyclists and horse riders to navigate. Given the choice between a light controlled crossing and the pedestrian refuge version, I'd much prefer the former - but will take the latter if it really proves impossible to do anything else.

You can find the official consultation online here.

Ridgegrove Rubbish (yet again)

I'm sorry to report that there are problems yet again with the amount of rubbish building up at the communal waste areas on the Ridgegrove Estate.

The pictures here were taken last night. It's the day before the collection is due, but the amount of rubbish spilling into the pathways is unacceptable and a blight for residents. I assume that the last collection was made on time and so it seems that two collections per week is simply not enough. I have asked the council to look urgently at introducing a third collection.

One of the problems with overflowing bins is that a lot of rubbish spills out onto the road and is often blown out onto Ridgegrove Lane. I've asked the council for an urgent litter pick and roadsweep to clear this up.

Hopefully, the problem will lessen when the estate moves to weekly doorstep collections. This was planned to be introduced a month or so ago, but the gas main works have put this on hold. I'm still pressing for doorstep collections as soon as possible.

One of the other problems is that of fly-tipping. Some residents seem to think that it is okay to dump large items like sofas and chairs by the bin areas. If the council can identify who has done this then they will take action to fine the people responsible.

Monday, 17 September 2012

More road closure news

I've had news of a couple of extra sets of road works in Launceston which may affect residents, visitors and businesses:
  • During the daytime (8am to 4.15pm) on October 29th, Upper Chapel will be closed for road patching works (it to repair potholes and other defects in the road surface). The affected area is between the top of Moorland Road and Meadowside.
  • During the daytime (7.30am to 6pm) on October 19th, St Stephens Hill will be closed for works on overhead cables. The affected area is between Mayne Close and Underhayes Lane.
  • From 15th-19th October (24 hours a day), the road between St Catherines Hill and Upper Chapel will be closed for water main works. The affected area is between Chapel Park and The Ranch.
A couple of days ago I posted about the plans to close the bottom of Race Hill for ten days in October. I've now had it confirmed that they will suspend these works for the weekend of the carnival.

Social Media surgery next Tuesday 25th at Launceston Library - and a Tweetathon

Next week is social media week - designed to encourage people to take a step to becoming more engaged online. As part of the week, Cornwall Council will be holding four drop-in surgeries including one in Launceston next Tuesday. There is also to be a 'tweetathon' next Thursday.

What is a social media surgery?

It's a chance for you to come along to learn more on a one-to-one basis about the different forms of social media. The fact that you're reading this blogpost probably means that you already have something of a handle on online communication. But if you would like to know more about Twitter, Facebook or online videos then this session could help. There will be help from some of Cornwall Council's social media experts (oh, and me).

Social media can help voluntary groups, businesses and individuals to better connect with clients, members and customers. The surgery will give you a few ideas to see whether there is an advantage for you.

The surgery takes place in the library next Tuesday (25th) from 5-7pm. It's completely free and everyone is welcome.

Also next week, Cornwall Council will be running a 'tweetathon'. This will try to promote the range of services that your local council provides. You can follow tweets from around the country using the hashtag #ourday or just those from Cornwall by using #CCday. If you don't know what hashtags are then you probably need to come to the library on Tuesday 25th!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Royal Mail's 'head in the sand' attitude

Not surprisingly, over the past few days I've been talking to Royal Mail quite a lot. Their attitude to the mail delivery problems we've been experiencing in Launceston leaves a lot to be desired.
  • At first their attitude was one of blaming the messenger - claiming that 48 hours was not enough to make a simple phone call.
  • Then they said that because they have a form ticked in the right place, that means that every house has been delivered to every day.
  • Next they said that because they hadn't had very many complaints to their call centre then it can't really be much of a problem.
  • Finally, they appear to be accusing local residents of making it all up.
At no stage has there been even the hint of an apology or a commitment to put things right.

It may be that they are actually working hard behind the scenes to plug to staff shortage and to reinstate daily deliveries. I certainly hope so. But the residents and businesses of Launceston deserve better than that. We deserve an apology.

UPDATE - I'm delighted that the BBC covered this story in their bulletin tonight but should point out, of course, that the Post Office is a separate business from Royal Mail and our local Post Office and staff have nothing to do with any of the problems residents are experiencing.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Missing Post - Have you been affected? - UPDATED

Further to my previous blog, I've now heard back from the public affairs team at Royal Mail. They assure me that 'the Universal Service Obligation is being delivered' - in other words that every house in Launceston is getting a mail delivery every working day Monday to Saturday.

That directly contradicts the evidence presented to me by residents and the statements made by local Royal Mail staff who say that they are under-staffed at the moment, that they have asked head office for more staff and that this request has been refused.

The Royal Mail person I have spoken to has asked for a report of customer complaints which he will get tomorrow. I have no idea what this will show as most people would choose to talk to the local delivery office rather than ring a number that sends them through many tiers of automated options before you get to talk to a call centre goodness knows where.

In the meantime, if anyone knows of any street that has been missed out and not received its regular deliveries, please could they let me know and I will pass it on to Royal Mail.

And remember, please don't blame the local delivery office and ordinary posties who appear to be short of staff and doing their best to cope in difficult circumstances.

UPDATE - So far I have been told that St Stephens Hill received no post for at least three days last week (and then a huge bundle on Saturday) and that similar happened in Park View. In both cases it has been reported to me that the post just sat in the delivery office. Royal Mail's HQ claims about all deliveries being made every day seems to be falling apart.

Royal Mail must restore daily deliveries in Launceston

There appears to be a significant shortage of postmen and women in Launceston at the moment. I'm told by many residents that they are only getting mail deliveries every three days. Neighbours have told me that they were finding the same story up and down their street. So we talked to the delivery office who said that they are short staffed at the moment and that the problem is affecting around half the town.

I know that the staff we have are a very friendly and hard-working bunch, but it's a big problem if there are too few of them and it seems that they are so short staffed that even doing a bit of overtime can't solve the problem.

Apparently the powers that be further up the line in Royal Mail won't allow any more staff to be employed to cover the deliveries. Launceston Delivery Office's hands are tied and they can only do what they can with the staff they have.

Whilst we might be communicating more and more electronically, there are still lots of reasons why we rely on the postal service. In particular, businesses need a reliable postal service for deliveries to customers including items ordered on-line, to receive parts and raw materials and to get paid. So fewer deliveries risks orders, profits and, ultimately, jobs.

The Royal Mail has a universal service commitment in their contract to offer a delivery service to every house six days a week. Their website states:
"Royal Mail has an obligation to deliver mail to every UK address every working day"

Together with my fellow councillor Sasha Gillard-Loft, I have asked Royal Mail for a comment and explanation (as well as a promise to restore our proper service). They still haven't got back to us...

Southgate St/Race Hill closure will hit car park access

Cornwall Council has announced that parts of Race Hill and Southgate Street will be closed for up to ten days during October for ducting works.

The sections to be closed stretch from the Newmarket pub to the top part of the Cattle Market car park.

The works will be carried out during the period of 8th to 19th October and will be in two phases. The first will cover the area immediately outside the Cattle Market car parks (the section in black on the  map). The second will be lower down the hill - the area outside the Pannier Market car park (the section in pink on the map). There will be a signed diversion in place (shown by a dotted line on the map).

I have asked Cornwall Council to ensure that both car parks stay open for as much of the period as possible. It looks like the Pannier Market will have to close during the second phase and there will only be a single entrance or exit to the Cattle Market car parks during this time. In order to make sure cars can get in and out, works will have to be done to take out the 'teeth' that stop cars going in through the exit and out through the entrance.

The Council is also temporarily suspending the one way section of Race Hill.

All of this could have an impact on Launceston Carnival on the 13th of October and I have asked the Council to make sure that the contractors ensure a safe and clear passage of this event.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Petition against Cornwall Privatisation

A petition has been launched by a cross party group of councillors calling for plans by senior members of Cornwall Council to privatise services to be stopped. Services including libraries, payroll and benefit payments face being run by outside companies after a tendering process for work worth £300m a year.

The petition is being run by Andrew Wallis, the Independent councillor who proposed the anti-privatisation motion at the last council meeting. Andrew's motion was approved by the majority of councillors but the Cabinet decided the next day to ignore democracy and press ahead with the plan.

Others behind the petition are MK's Andrew Long, Lib Dem Geoff Brown, Labour's Jude Robinson and Independent Graham Walker.

I've signed the petition. You can do so here.

ITV News to cut Cornwall coverage even further?

A few weeks ago I blogged about the plans of Heart FM to cut its Cornish content. Now it emerges that another media organisation is threatening to do similar.

Westcountry TV used to have a significant Cornish output with a studio in Truro, a nightly Cornwall news segment and six staff based in Cornwall.

Then, three years ago, almost all of this went. Eighty staff were made redundant and the nightly news bulletin became a greater South West one combining the old Western Counties and Devon and Cornwall outputs.

Now the company is looking for cuts again and this will seriously hamper the job of giving Cornwall (and Devon) the coverage they deserve. We might be left with just a single reporter and part-time camera operator for Cornwall. With cuts in Devon too, we might be in a situation where there is just a single reporter covering the whole of Devon and Cornwall at weekends and only three during the week.

ITV's stated commitment to regional news is starting to look a bit hollow.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The great summer of sport becomes a great autumn too

Did you hear that scream? That was the producer of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year show running from the building as Andy Murray became the first British man to win a grand slam since forever. And with that win he established himself firmly among the top rank of the SPOTY candidates.

What's it going to take to win the award this year? It seems it's definitely a matter of 'Gold Medal +..."

According to the bookies, the favourite is still Bradley Wiggins - Gold Medal + Tour de France winner.

But then there are also:

Andy Murray - Gold Medal + US Open winner + Wimbledon finalist (if he'd won that one too he would probably be ahead of Wiggo)
Mo Farah - Two Gold Medals
Sarah Storey - Four Gold Medals
David Weir - Four Gold Medals
Ellie Simmonds - Two Gold Medals, one silver and one bronze
Chris Hoy - Two Gold Medals (but he will be marked down as a previous winner)
Ben Ainslie - Gold Medal (but it was the fourth time he has won his event)
Rory McIlroy - US PGA major winner
Jonathan Fox - Gold Medal + Silver Medal

Poor old Jessica Ennis with her measley one Gold Medal is getting shoved down the list, but will safely make the shortlist partly because her event is one of the toughest, but also because the BBC was so embarrassed by the all-male shortlist last time that they will (rightly) include her this time. But people like Victoria Pendleton, Greg Rutherford and Alistair Brownlee might well miss out.

Look at that list again. Not only are there no footballers, rugby players or cricketers, but McIlroy is the only person on it who did not appear that the Olympics.

My own personal preference is still for Wiggins. The Tour de France is the toughest annual event in sport. But this was Britain's Olympic year and so a winner needs to have performed on that stage as well - and Wiggins did that in spades.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Scrutiny backs St Austell as site for new archive and records office

Today's meeting of Cornwall's Communities Scrutiny Committee decided that St Austell is the best place to host the new archive and records office for Cornwall. The St Austell bid was chosen above those from Redruth and Hayle.

The decision to go for a new joint archive a record centre comes because the existing archive - below Old County Hall - is full to overflowing. Historical items are scattered around the UK and are not on display for the people of Cornwall and visitors as they should be. It makes sense to combine the archive with the Cornish Studies Library (currently based in Redruth) into a state of the art new facility.

More than 30 bids were received to host the new facility and three were shortlisted. Sadly, none of these was in the East. I therefore took the decision that, all other things being equal, I would want to see the St Austell bid win through as it is more accessible.

In fact the St Austell bid is also cheaper and comes at lower risk. The Redruth site needs extensive flood alleviation work before work can start and the Hayle site has the least option for future expansion.

Officers had recommended the Redruth site - and I feel sorry that they will see the moving of an excellent facility out of their town. But the majority of members (it was decided on by 11 votes to 1) decided that the ease of access and lower risk involved in the St Austell bid outweighed the potential regenerative effects of the Redruth bid.

The final decision will be taken by the Cabinet later this month.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Cornwall Cabinet sticks two fingers up to democracy

Cornwall's Tory led cabinet has this afternoon stuck two fingers up to democracy and insisted that it will press ahead with the privatisation of key council services despite an overwhelming vote against the proposal at yesterday's full council meeting.

The Cabinet member in charge of the policy - Steve Double - has claimed that most of the concerns raised yesterday had already been addressed at the council meeting. Clearly members were not convinced by the answers they were given then or subsequently.

Steve also claims that there are many cases of successful public-private partnerships. Which is true. But there are also many examples of privatisation disasters and Cornwall's own history has not been so successful. Members are clearly worried about the ability of the authority to make any contract work.

Indeed, the statement issued by Cllr Double today is virtually identical to the one sent out as soon as the vote was taken yesterday - so it appears that the Cabinet has not even considered the case made by councillors.

From another cabinet member comes the claim that ordinary members of the council did not engage (read: understand) with the issues under discussion. All I can say to that is that the majority of members who sat on the single issue panel which looked at extreme depth into the issue voted against the privatisation scheme yesterday, and the cabinet member who had studied the issue most deeply also spoke out against it.

Liberal Democrats maintain that the administration does not have the mandate to carry through this scheme which risks services, jobs and money. We have challenged the Conservatives to face the electorate with this plan next May, but it seems they are too afraid to do so.

UPDATE - My colleague and group leader Jeremy Rowe has just said this:

"I am appalled at this latest display of arrogance from the Conservatives at County Hall. At yesterday's meeting more than half of the democratically elected Councillors present voted to stop this privatisation process, yet today a select few tucked away in the top floor bunker in Truro have decided to ignore that clear view from the Council and plough on regardless. They have no mandate for this outsourcing project but they still have the arrogance to assume they know better than just about everybody else. It is a black day for democracy in Tory-led Cornwall."

Cornwall Lib Dems statement on privatisation vote

As I'm at a conference in Telford this week, I was unable to attend yesterday's full council meeting where the issue of the privatisation of services was discussed. But the council voted clearly in favour of the motion put forward condemning the plans. After the debate, my colleague Jeremy Rowe had this to say:

"Cornwall Councillors today voted overwhelmingly and unequivocally against the cabinet's decision to go into a joint venture partnership with a private company to deliver a wide range of council services - in effect a privatisation. It is now up to the Cabinet to respond to this vote, but we cannot see how they could choose to over-ride the considered views of councillors as expressed today."

"No party stood in 2009 on a manifesto of privatising more services and it would be wrong to take such a huge decision without the understanding and support of the electorate. We challenge the Conservatives and those of their Independent group allies who voted for this move to stand next May on a platform of privatisation. Only if the voters of Cornwall support them should this plan move ahead."

"There is obviously scope to look at doing things differently, but part of the problem has been the Cabinet's reluctance to ask the right questions. For instance, Cornwall Council and the NHS could look at working together to provide an in-house solution to IT provision and this may have the potential to save considerable sums of money while being an attractive proposition for other local authorities. All we ask is that all the options are examined instead of the current administration's narrow ideological approach."

"Today's debate saw members from all sides express their concern and opposition to this proposal which is hasty and ill-thought through. There are, of course, some public-private partnerships which have been very successful. But Cornwall has a sorry history of PFI and contract problems which we cannot afford to see repeated with these services. We do not believe that it is in Cornwall's best interests to proceed with this plan."

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Cornwall's Joint Venture

At the full council meeting on Tuesday there is a motion to do with Cornwall Council's decision to enter into a joint venture partnership to deliver a range of services including libraries and one stop shops, payroll and back office services. Because the venture will involve creating a private company which will be (at least) majority controlled by the private sector partner and because there will be no councillor representation on the board, we have described this move as privatisation.

The power to take this decision rests with the cabinet and they have already voted to start the process. The debate on Tuesday is a last ditch attempt by non-cabinet councillors from Lib Dem, MK, Labour and Indie groups to put the brakes on.

We know that there are two bidders to be the private sector partner. One is BT - a well known name already in partnership with various councils up and down the country. The trouble is that, as Unison has pointed out to councillors, in Suffolk the hoped for savings have not been made and the contract will not be renewed and in Rotherham the contract wasn't working and the council bought out the contract.

There are no doubt more successful joint ventures involving BT, but there is a degree of risk involved and I am concerned that the council has not properly thought through all the facets of such a deal and is rushing into it.

As for the other potential partner, CSC, they are an American company with very little history of doing business in the UK. Both partners were asked to highlight any 'bad news' surrounding their company as well as the good - something I very much approve of. The trouble is that one of the most damaging accusations against CSC didn't appear in their dossier. In 2004 they bought another company, called DynCorp, which had been involved in extraordinary renditions (ie kidnaps) of people by the US government and flying them halfway round the world to secret prisons.

But, as the organisation Reprieve alleges in a letter to the council on Andrew Wallis' blog, CSC's involvement in rendition did not end when they bought DynCorp. Reprieve say that they were involved in further flights in their own right.

I find it extraordinary that Cornwall Council should consider doing business with such an ethically challenged company. I find it even worse that the company should try to purge mention of these incidents from the dossier they supplied to the council.

At the end of the day I think there is the potential for Cornwall Council to do some sort of business involving bidding for other public sector work. But I remain far from convinced that they have thought this issue through properly and I am incredibly concerned that they should still be considering a company such as CSC.

Tuesday's debate will be an interesting one.