Wednesday, 31 October 2012

What message is Phil Parsons sending out?

Councillors in Cornwall have, for legitimate reasons, taken different points of view on the issue of the allowances paid to members and the vote to raise those allowances next May. I voted against the proposed rise, but understand the reasons that others voted for them - even if I disagree.

In today's Cornish and Devon Post, Altarnun Tory councillor Phil Parsons is quoted extensively on the issue. Phil decries the decision to increase allowances and asks:
"What message are we sending out?"
All this is perfectly reasonable except that Phil wasn't actually there when the vote on allowances was taken. He had left the meeting to go home. This despite the meeting having been arranged and in councillors diaries since last March.

So, to answer his question, the message that Phil seems to be sending out is that if you vote for him, you'll get someone who can't be bothered to be there at the time that the key decisions are being taken.

In case any reader thinks that this is a one off example, Phil has a habit of not turning up to key decisions. Parking is one of the biggest concerns to people in the Launceston area and Phil is the only Launceston area councillor on the parking panel which recommends the charging rates for local car parks. Since the panel came into being, there have been 23 meetings, of which Phil has attended just 10. There was a period of more than a year when Phil didn't attend a single meeting of the panel.

In total, since he was elected in 2009, Phil has attended just 69% of all meetings he was due to and couldn't even be bothered to submit his apologies in almost a quarter of the ones he missed. His is the lowest attendance record of all the Launceston area councillors and even at those meetings he is recorded as attending, as with the allowances vote, he is often gone by the time some important decisions are taken.

There are other councillors who don't have great attendance records - often due to illness. And we shouldn't be judging our councillors purely by the number of times they set foot in County Hall. The work we do as ward members in our communities is just as important - if not more so. But a councillor who decides to go to the press to berate his colleagues for their decision on allowances should be prepared to justify their own record. 

(For the record, I have a 90% attendance record and have submitted apologies every time I missed a meeting).

Monday, 29 October 2012

Wanted: People with tape measures and notebooks. Apply to Eric Pickles

It seems that Eric Pickles wants to recruit an army of snoopers armed with tape measures and notepads in his latest central initiative to make local government more open and accountable.

According to Conservative Home:

Councils will have to publish soon as it is produced the number of off-street parking places and the revenue raised from them; the number of on-street parking places and the revenue they raise; as well as the revenue from parking fines and the number of free parking spaces available in line with the Portas Review of the High Street recommendations.

The trouble is that in rural areas (and probably in urban too), there is no simple database of all parking spaces in or around our town centres. Most councils will have the data on the capacity of their car parks (but some are very informal and not marked), but what about on-street parking spaces?

In Cornwall, our streets aren't divided into bays - merely a hatched line to indicate the area that people may park. Does Mr Pickles want councils to recruit busybodies to go around measuring and counting the potential car parking spaces? I can certainly think of better ways to spend local taxpayers' money.

Mr Pickles is right in so far as councils should be open and transparent about the money they raise from parking. Here in Cornwall the council makes the second highest profit in the country outside London (and the seventh if you include the capital). The amount raised - more than £8m - would have been even more if it weren't for the multiple failures to hit their budget by the parking department (clue: don't treat car parks as a cash cow. Motorists can only afford so much).

But whilst openness and transparency is to be applauded, I'm not sure that yet another central diktat like this is going to make anyone much the wiser and it's going to be pretty burdensome to produce.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Launceston Lib Dems call for urgent action from new parking boss

Together with my colleague Sasha Gillard-Loft and local Lib Dem campaigner Jade Farrington, I have written to Cornwall Council's new cabinet member for highways and transportation calling for urgent action on parking issues in the town.

We have asked Councillor Bert Biscoe to continue the £200 season ticket trial price which is due to run out at the end of October and to extend the deal to other areas of the town where Cornwall Council still charges £470 per year.

The cheaper £200 season ticket deal we secured back in July has been a huge success with more than 100 sold already. It has made a profit for Cornwall Council to help fund local services, but it has also been a welcome relief for town centre workers who couldn't afford £470 per year. The trial period is due to run out at the end of the month and Launceston cannot afford to return to the previous chaos.

We've asked Cllr Biscoe to confirm the trial as a success and make the £200 price permanent. We also need him to extend the deal to the other season ticket areas around the town rather than just limiting it to the Cattle Market long stay car park.

We hope the new cabinet member for parking will also bring a new attitude to pricing. Cornwall Council has treated car parks as a cash cow which can be milked for as much money as possible. That attitude wasn't just harming local shops and businesses, but it was failing to bring in the amount of money needed. The parking budget had to be bailed out twice in the last year alone.

The rising cost encouraged commuters to leave their cars in residential streets as they abandoned the car parks – making it difficult for householders to find a space outside their own homes. Some of those living in Race Hill asked the council for a residents-only parking permit scheme and it is set to come into effect shortly.

We’ve knocked on all the doors in Race Hill and people are very concerned about the lack of information about the scheme. We’re asking Cornwall Council to include the right to park in the Fair Park season ticket car park within the cost of the permit as it is currently almost empty and it would give Race Hill residents a much better chance of finding a space.

We have invited Cllr Biscoe to Launceston so we can show him the devastating effect Cornwall Council’s parking charges have had on the town centre and we will be urging him to lower them when the council’s new tariffs start in April.

This story was covered in the Western Morning News and Plymouth Herald at the weekend.

Camelford Leisure Centre deal announced - UPDATED

The front page of today's Cornish Guardian carries the announcement that Camelford Leisure Centre has been saved from closure by the local community after Cornwall Council decided to close it.

This is fantastic news for the people of Camelford, led by Mayor Rob Rotchell and the leisure centre users. It's been a long fight. Two years ago the Council declared that they would be abandoning the leisure centre (we have never found out why they chose Camelford) and closure was certain unless the local community stepped in.

After a lot of hard work (and precious little help at times from the council), the funding has been secured and the leisure centre will stay open. Neil Burden deserves credit for ensuring that there is funding from the children's services department for the next two years as part of the package.

Read the full story here.

UPDATE: Local MP Dan Rogerson has added his thoughts:

"I am extremely grateful to everyone involved who has worked so hard to secure the future of the Leisure Centre for the town and the surrounding areas. It is only through their hard work and determination that the Centre has been saved.

"Naturally there will be some way to go to get more support for the future to ensure that the Centre can become profitable and stand on its own two feet. I will continue to lend my support and to help out where I can.

"It is good to see that despite their poor response at the start, Cornwall Council has now come around and agreed to meet local people half way in their bid to save the centre by guaranteeing some funding for the next two years. But other leisure centres in Cornwall will still be receiving funding from the Council, so I am now calling on the Conservative and Independent administration running Cornwall Council to continue to provide funding in the long term like they do for other leisure centres. The People of Camelford and the North coast pay their Council Tax like everyone else, and so they deserve to be treated the same as everyone else in Cornwall."

Tory MP Geoffrey Cox says boundary changes are 'zombie proposals'

At least one Conservative MP is prepared to break ranks with the Prime Minister and express his opposition to the proposed boundary changes.

Geoffrey Cox is MP for Torridge and West Devon and would see part of his current seat amalgamated with North East Cornwall to form the Devonwall seat. In an interview with the BBC, Mr Cox says that he would vote against the proposals.

Although Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps has claimed that some sort of deal could still be done to offer the Lib Dems party funding reform in return for the new boundaries, Nick Clegg has been insistent that there can be no 'cash for constituencies' deal and that the Lib Dems will vote against the change.

See the full BBC report here.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Promise of action on Westgate pothole

This morning I had a meeting with our local highways engineer to  discuss a range of issues including the ever expanding pothole outside the Westgate Inn.

Although not hugely deep, the pothole is now more than five feet long and getting bigger all the time.

Thousands of cars pass over this spot every day and each one runs the risk of damaging tyres and suspensions - and it's not great for people in the car either.

Originally, a temporary patch was planned, but the council will now be undertaking a full repair within the next week or so.

Park for free in Launceston next Wednesday

Cornwall Council is once again offering free parking in various car parks across Cornwall next Wednesday 31st October.

To take up the offer, you need to display a voucher which can be found in the Cornish Guardian tomorrow. You can also print off a copy for free by using this link.

The free parking only applies after 9.30am and to some Cornwall Council car parks and does not apply to those operated by other organisations such as the town council. In Launceston, the valid car parks are:

Walk House Car Park
Cattle Market Short Stay Car Park
Cattle Market Long Stay Car Park

Western Road closure - early December

Early notice that part of Western Road - fortunately not part of the main road itself - will be closed at the beginning of December for water main works.

The stretch affected is the up-slope of the triangle outside Western Terrace. See the map to find out which bit I mean. The affected area is marked in solid black.

The works are planned for December 3rd - 7th and will be full-time during this period. The signposted diversion will be via Chapel, Upper Chapel, Moorland Road and St Johns Road and is marked on the map with a dotted line.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Councillors vote on pay

Cornwall councillors today voted to reject the recommendation of the Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP) which included the former boss of local newspaper group Cornish and Devon Media, but did agree a rise in allowances from May next year when the new council is elected.

It's always a very tricky business to vote on your own pay. I wish there was a way we could hand it over or tie our allowances to the pay of a particular officer level, but the law is clear in stating that we must decide based on an IRP report.

The IRP said that the appropriate level of basic allowance should be £16,200 per year. When this was put to councillors by Labour councillor Jude Robinson as part of a package that included a study of how to increase pay for the lowest earning staff members, there was an overwhelming vote against.

The other proposition was for a rise to £14,600 per year. This was based on the amount that the IRP had said should be paid in their last report a couple of years ago. This proposal was combined with a recommendation to review the free meals that councillors can have when attending county hall on business. This proposal was passed by 42 votes to 29.

Of those who voted (and only just over half of all councillors did):
  • the Conservative group split 12-12, 
  • the Lib Dem group split 10-10, 
  • the Independents (of various shades) backed the raise by 16 votes to 6, 
  • MK backed the raise by 3 votes to 1 and 
  • the sole Labour member voted for the raise.
Personally, I voted against the increase. Although I think it is right to consider a rise every four years (Lib Dems resisted three previous attempts led by the former Leader to raise aspects of councillor allowances), I felt that the amounts being talked about were still too much. It is true that councillors who undertake the role full time receive less than the minimum wage, but I wanted to see a rise in the basic allowance tied to cuts in the special responsibility allowances package and other benefits so that the overall effect was cost neutral. I think this would have better reflected the balance of work undertaken by councillors and been acceptable to the public.

Privatisation kicked into the long grass

Cornwall Council today voted to kick privatisation into the long grass.

In the interim, the council will properly consider alternatives including:
  • working more closely with our NHS and other public sector colleagues to share services and deliver savings as a result (but without a private sector partner creaming off a profit);
  • working with a private sector partner in a trading venture to bid for contracts outside Cornwall and to bring new jobs to Cornwall;
  • an employee-owned mutual company.
In my opinion, we can't afford to take this decision without properly understanding all the options. The old cabinet started off with one view and then dropped it (for no apparent reason) and put all its eggs into the full-privatisation basket.

I also believe that the final decision must rest with all 123 councillors - not a select group of 10 - and that provision was agreed by council today.

So how deep into the grass has this been kicked? My personal view is that it should be for the next council to take this decision. None of the current councillors was elected on a manifesto commitment to support or oppose privatisation - it wasn't on the table in 2009. If the final decision is delayed until after May next year then the councillors can feel they have the mandate of their electorate to support one option or another.

But whatever model is taken forward, I do not believe that libraries or one stop shops should be handed over to a private company. These are key front line services and I think they should carry on being delivered by Cornwall Council staff on behalf of Cornish residents.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Challenging the new Police Commissioner (before they are even elected)

Today saw the first meeting of the new Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Panel, the committee which will oversee and scrutinise the work of the soon-to-be-elected Commissioner.

There are 16 councillor members - five from Cornwall, one from the Isles of Scilly, two from Plymouth, one from Torbay Unitary, one from Devon County Council and one from each of the district councils in Devon. In addition, we have appointed two lay members.

Today was mostly about briefings and understanding the role. But the real works starts once the Commissioner is elected on the 15th November. The Panel will then scrutinise his or her budget and crime reduction plan as well as holding confirmation hearings for appointments to top jobs including the Chief Constable.

Already I have used my membership of the panel to question the decision by the outgoing Police Authority to advertise for a £55,000 a year spin doctor for the new commissioner. I think there are higher priorities than this for spending public money. Even if a press officer is needed, the going rate for such a job is a lot less than £55k.

I was also disappointed that there was talk of the new Commissioner having a team 'equivalent to a Minister's Private Office'. That implies quite a large staff of special advisors and spin doctors - altogether excessive for the task at hand. We'll have to see where the new Commissioner decides his or her priorities lie. Will it be to build up a fiefdom or to put resources back on the street?

Rowan Atkinson - not funny

Rowan Atkinson recently spoke out in support of the campaign to repeal section 5 of the Public Order Act and in support of freedom of speech. It's not funny, but it's well worth watching:

Friday, 19 October 2012


It's absolutely not true to say that Westminster Tories have conspired in today's events because Cornwall Conservatives were in danger of making them look competent...

But full credit to new Chief Whip (and yet another Old Etonain) Sir George Young, for managing to get all the main stories in one handy poster...

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Lanson Community Network Panel does health

Four times a year, the Launceston Community Network Panel meets to discuss issues of concern locally. Tonight we looked at the local health service and the changes in provision that are coming over the next 12 months.

Thanks to all the town and parish councillors who came along, as well as the health service people who answered so many questions.

One of the key questions was about the closure of a number of beds at Launceston Hospital. This has been put down to staff shortages and, I am told, the transfer of staff back to Stratton Hospital. Apparently Peninsula Community Health (who run our hospital) have been trying to recruit new staff but have failed to do so. One of the problems, it seems, is that their new staff cannot join the NHS pension scheme. It appears that the pension scheme being offered by PCH isn't up to scratch.

In my opinion, the answers being given by the PCH and other representatives there were simply not good enough. We don't know why they failed to prepare for the movement of staff, why they have failed to offer good enough terms and conditions to recruit new staff or when the hospital will be fully open for business. We have asked for a better report...

The other key issue is the need to expand Launceston Medical Centre. A year ago the business manager at the centre told us that they were trying to negotiate to use space within the hospital grounds for extra car parking and to expand the building itself. Twelve months on and the situation is exactly the same. I don't blame the GPs or the medical centre staff for this. It appears that, since the Primary Care Trust discovered that it was being abolished, nobody from that organisation has been willing to step up to the plate and do what they are meant to - ensure that there are adequate GP services for the population of Launceston.

When new houses are built there will inevitably be more demand for public services. Our education service requires developers to make contributions to fund the extra school places that will be needed. But the health service (in the form of the Primary Care Trust) completely fails to do so. As a council, we cannot hand money over to a private business like the medical centre. But we can listen to requests from the people who are meant to be in charge of services - the PCT. Once again, it seems, they are failing to serve local residents.

The PCT's responsibility for commissioning GP services will shortly transfer to a new local NHS Commissioning Board. I'm hoping they will address Launceston's needs as a matter of urgency.

£55k for a Police Commissioner spin doctor as crime rises

Cornwall is still one of the safest places to live in the UK, but our police area has nevertheless seen an increase in recorded (ie serious) crime of 7% in the past year.

I'm disappointed, therefore, that the out-going Police Authority has decided to spend £55,000 recruiting a new press officer for the incoming Police Commissioner. There needs to be a competent back up team for the new person, but I question whether a £55k spin doctor is the right use of resources.

I'm one of five Cornwall Councillors who sits on the scrutiny panel over-seeing the work of the commissioner. I'm disappointed that this proposal hasn't come to us for comment and I'll be seeking to raise the issue when we meet on Monday.

And then there was one...

The fact that one of the bidders for Cornwall Council's proposed privatisation has pulled out might be seen as another nail in the coffin of a dead proposal. But it also makes it much more difficult for anyone who wants to take the proposal forward to hope to get a value for money outcome.

I'll put my cards on the table. Whilst I think there are areas of joint working (and even working with a private sector partner) that could be taken forward, I'm wholly opposed to certain aspects of the current proposal and think it should be dropped at this time. I'd like to see the next council make the decision based on a mandate from the public and including a 'third way' option of a mutual or the original trading vehicle option.

But whilst I was very concerned about the idea of working with a company with such a colourful history as CSC (orange jumpsuits anybody), their decision to pull out makes a mockery of the idea of a competitive tendering process. The remaining bidder - BT - could decide to backtrack on some of their commitments as they would be under less pressure to produce a better deal. (That's not to say that they will, of course. The process until now has meant that they have made certain promises that it would be difficult to renege on, even if they were minded to).

The decision will be taken next Tuesday by the full council (as it should be). I'll be arguing that it should be shelved until May.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The power of Digital Democracy

A quick additional post to point readers in the direction of the blog written by Cornwall Council new media manager Matt Bond.

Matt has pointed out that there was a huge engagement with the debate via the webcast (more than 4000 viewers) and on Twitter (the third highest trending topic in the UK at one point).

Read more here.

Alec Robertson - my part in his downfall

The bare facts are that Cornwall councillors today voted to remove Alec Robertson as Leader of the authority and to install Jim Currie in his place. But such bare bones cannot possibly do justice to a day of drama and frustration.

The most 'normal' part of the meeting was the debate on the motion of no confidence in the Leader although even that took place in the absence of the man himself. New rules on the declaration of interests mean that the Leader is deemed to have a pecuniary interest in whether he stays in his job because of the allowance he gets as a result. The lawyers made it clear that Cllr Robertson had the right to stay and argue his case if he wanted to but he chose not to do so.

For me, that settled how I would vote. Alec Robertson is a good man who did many good things as Leader. But by ignoring the opportunity to convince us that he would adopt a more democratic style and abandon the privatisation proposal, he left many of us with no option but to vote against him and the Lib Dem group voted for his removal.

But, of course, it wasn't up to the Lib Dems alone. At least 22 councillors from the administration parties also voted to remove him and the final tally was 63 to 49.

With the removal out of the way, the meeting adjourned for lunch and for potential replacements to canvass support. The lobbying and deal making dragged on and on. The Liberal Democrats took the view that we would not seek to take power. We lost at the last election in 2009 and felt it was up to the current administration to find a new leader. We hope, of course, to win control at the elections next May but, until we have a mandate from the people of Cornwall, we will not try to take control by the back door.

We heard various rumours about who was being lined up by each of the other groups and invited those candidates to come to speak to us and try to secure our votes. We took the view that each Lib Dem councillor would be free to vote for whichever candidate they wanted or none at all and so it was right to give the candidates the chance to convince us.

At one stage the two administration groups could not agree on a single candidate and we had the prospect of rival candidacies. And then there was the spectre of Jim Currie, whose resignation from the cabinet had perhaps put the final nail in Alec Robertson's chances of staying in power. But a further adjournment was called and the vote came down to a contest between Independent Cllr Neil Burden and Conservative Cllr Jim Currie.

In his speech, Cllr Currie made it clear that he would seek to restore control of the council to councillors themselves. He also made it clear (as he had all along) that he would have no truck with the privatisation proposal in its current form. Cllr Burden talked about a change in style, but failed, in my view, to make the same commitments as Cllr Currie had.

And so it came to the vote. I was torn between the two. I like Neil Burden a lot but felt that I had to stick to my principles. I had voted to remove Alec Robertson as leader because of the privatisation policy and could hardly then support a replacement who had similar views.

In the end, Cllr Currie won with 49 votes to 46 for Cllr Burden. By and large, most Conservatives and Independents voted for Neil Burden and most Lib Dems and MK voted for Cllr Currie.

But even then the drama was not finished as four cabinet members - Julian German, Graeme Hicks, Chris Ridgers and Steve Double - immediately announced their resignation from the Cabinet.

We shall wait and see what the next few days bring. There will have to be a considerable change in the cabinet, but Lib Dems will be holding Jim Currie to his promises to be more open and democratic and to end the current privatisation proposals.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Boundary Commission confirms Devonwall plan - but it won't happen

The Boundary Commission has today published its revised proposals for Cornwall parliamentary constituencies. They have maintained the proposal of a cross-border Devonwall seat but with even more Devon wards thrown into the mix. Instead of being roughly 50-50, it would now be a seat heavily skewed in favour of Devon.

But while all of these new borders are fairly alarming, the good news is that they are a purely academic exercise since the Liberal Democrats announced that they would vote against the new boundaries in Parliament. Together with Labour, some of the smaller parties and a few Conservative rebels, there is a clear majority against the new boundaries.

North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson had this to say on the new boundaries:

"A cross-border seat makes no sense, and neither does a constituency that puts the Wadebridge and Padstow area together with St Austell.

"The Boundary Commission have ignored most of the sensible suggestions that they were given to improve upon their starting position. It is a shame that they could not have been more sympathetic to the views of my constituents as they have been expressed to me.

"Whilst the position of the Liberal Democrats on this exercise is clear - that we will vote against the plans to change constituency boundaries - I hope that Conservative MPs in Cornwall and in Devon will do the same to kill off this idea once and for all."

To be honest, it would make a lot more sense to stop the whole boundary review process and spend any money that can be saved on trying to improve registration rates. But it seems the Prime Minister is intent on pressing these boundaries to a pointless vote. If it does come to a vote, it will be interesting to see whether local Tory MPs vote with Cornwall or with their party whips.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Keeping the streets warm this winter

There seems to have been another outbreak of yarn bombing in Launceston over the last few nights.

With colder weather moving in, it appears some people want to make sure that the street furniture is kept nice and warm.

You can see more examples here.

As to who is responsible, still no one is saying....

Don't forget, carnival is tomorrow evening, from 7pm.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Launceston town council votes against TRAC and for Morrisons

At the Launceston Town Council planning meeting tonight, they had both the TRAC project and Morrisons on the agenda.

On TRAC it seems that the western application (the stretch from New Mills to Egloskerry) will shortly be withdrawn for re-submission to take account of an updated environmental study and to correct a small error in the current application. As it is about to be withdrawn, the committee did not vote on it but I sensed that there was strong support for the view that the trail should not be built in a way that would compromise the future extension of the railway.

For the eastern end - from town to New Mills - the committee viewed the proposal to include such a huge length of on-road trail along Under Lane as the deciding factor. They voted 7-1 against the proposal. This matter will be decided by Cornwall Council's East Area Planning Committee.

On the issue of the Link Road development and proposed Morrisons, Margaret Wills of Launceston in Bloom made a speech on the need to preserve the avenue of oaks. She said that she was not against the proposal in principle, but she wanted to preserve the trees that had been planted by such a wide range of organisations at the millennium. The committee agreed to support moving the development sufficiently back so as to not impinge on the growing trees.

They also voted in favour of the principle and key elements of the development but raised questions about the number of houses proposed and the cut in the proportion of employment land. They also voted to restore the spur from the roundabout to the boundary of the development to form the southern loop road - this has disappeared from the latest plans. This application will be determined by Cornwall Council's Strategic Planning Committee.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Jim sticks the knife in

Politics eh, bloody hell.

Just as we thought things couldn't get even more interesting before next Tuesday's vote of no confidence in Alec Robertson as Leader of the Council, tonight Jim Currie has resigned from the cabinet. You can read his resignation letter on Andrew Wallis' blog.

So whilst the council is preparing its draft budget for next year, the cabinet is without a member responsible for corporate support (ie the budget) and a deputy leader.

Government by conference soundbite - and why it affects Cornwall - UPDATED

Localism is a good thing. It means handing power down from government to local councils and from local councils to parish and town councils, community groups and even individuals. It's more than the old John Major-era concept of subsidiarity - which was all about decision making. It's about delivering services as well.

And the coalition government has done a lot to make localism happen.
  • Local groups can now challenge to run services themselves if they believe they can do it better or cheaper.
  • Communities can 'list' assets of community value to stop them being sold from under their noses.
  • Town and parish councils can lead the way in deciding what sort of development they want and where it should be - and this plan will have the weight of law on its side.
But there is still room for improvement. The right to bid to run local services will remain a pretty hollow one if councils (like Cornwall) refuse to recognise any community benefit in local service delivery and insist on judging a bid on a purely commercial basis. And the neighbourhood plans idea is great, but needs investment and resources from the council to make it happen.

But whilst these are a good step in the right direction, many Conservative ministers still think that central command and control is the right way forward.

Latest with the 'nanny knows best' outlook is Chancellor George Osborne. Yesterday he announced that he wanted to see councils freeze council tax for a third year and that, for those that did, he would give them a one off grant equivalent to 1% of their budget. Last year, councils who froze tax levels got a 2.5% grant. And, more than that, he would effectively cap councils at a 2% rise in council tax. If an authority wants to raise tax more than that then they will need to hold a very costly referendum and seek voter approval.

That is about as far from localism as it is possible to get. Local councillors who know their local budgets backwards are being usurped from their role by a Chancellor looking to get a cheap clap from his party conference. Even those councillors who want to see council tax bills frozen or cut have been speaking out against this authoritarianism. The (Conservative) head of the Local Government Association said this:
“Reducing the current referendum trigger from 3.5 per cent to 2 per cent represents less flexibility for councils and even less localism with Whitehall decreeing what constitutes excessive. If local referendums are to be truly localist, they should be triggered by local people who can determine whether a council tax increase is excessive or not.
Let's have localism that is (to use Nick Clegg's awful phrase) hard-wired into our society so that it is automatically down to local communities to decide things. It's entirely wrong that these issues should remain at the whim of a minister.

UPDATE - An excellent open letter to Eric Pickles on the issues of planning and the loss of localism is here.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Apple and Orange back off the naughty step

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about problems I had been having with my phone as a result (it seems) of upgrading to the latest operating system.

I'm happy to say that I have got as new handset from Apple (which works) and just had a call from Orange to apologise that I was given the wrong information by their helpdesk. They have also agreed to compensate me for the time I was cut off.

This is not a u-turn...

"This is not a u-turn, I'm just listening. There's no point the cabinet pushing through a policy that the majority of the council are against. That's doomed to fail."
That was the Leader of the Council speaking on Radio Cornwall this morning to announce that he was, after all, prepared to accept the outcome of a vote of Cornwall's full council when it comes to deciding whether or not to press ahead with the privatisation of key services.

And, as well as not being a U-turn, it is also nothing to do with next week's vote of no confidence in his leadership, according to Cllr Robertson. Of course not. The Leader talked about saving jobs, but my colleague Jeremy Rowe hit the nail on the head when he said that the only jobs he is worrying about are his own and those of his colleagues in the County Hall bunker.

So why doesn't Cllr Robertson simply accept the vote that has already been taken on this very subject when the council voted clearly against the privatisation policy? According to the Leader this morning, councillors didn't have all the information and also that vote wasn't clear. He now wants to spend the next two weeks persuading people of the benefits of privatisation. It seems incredible that it takes a no-confidence vote to force him to start making his case. Why don't we have a council that genuinely gets out and listens to the residents and businesses of Cornwall all the time rather than simply when their backs are against the wall.

The Leader appears to be trying to set an extra threshold for this particular vote. Whereas every decision taken by the council to date has been on the basis of the majority of those who expressed a preference, he wants a higher threshold - an overall majority of all councillors - for this decision.

I've blogged about this before - it's arbitrary and anti-democratic. But Alec himself failed to stick to the line during the interview when he declared that:
"If a majority of the council aren't in favour of it then we won't go ahead."
So instead of needing a super-majority against to stop privatisation, he seems to be declaring that he needs a super-majority in favour to go ahead. No doubt the carefully written press release will tell us what he should have said.

The other key line from this morning's interview was when the Leader said that the reason they had no Plan B and were putting all Cornwall's eggs in one basket because:
"We haven't fully considered all the alternatives"
It's incredible isn't it. This is the future of some pretty fundamental council services and hundreds of jobs. Yet instead of fully considering a range of options and then picking the best, they have fixated on one particular outcome.

There is probably a lot of money to be saved by teaming up with the health service and other public bodies in Cornwall for back office functions. But is this best done simply by working with the health service or do we need a private sector partner to help us (and take money out of the system to satisfy their shareholders along the way)? We don't know because the public sector only alternative hasn't been fully worked up.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Chalres Causley takes centre stage for National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day and Launceston poet Charles Causley's work 'I Am The Song' has been chosen to appear in lights in Piccadilly Circus through the day.

If you can't get to London, here's the poem:

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Legitimate Votes...

An email has just dropped into my inbox which makes some interesting comparisons and which I have used as the basis for this blogpost:

Both Alec Robertson and George Eustice have appeared on Radio Cornwall and argued that Cllr Robertson and his Cabinet were justified in refusing to accept the legitimacy of the vote on privatisation because an unusually small number of councillors were present at the full council meeting on September 4th 2012 and this somehow invalidated the result of the vote.

73% of councillors attended the debate and voted or chose to abstain and the motion was passed by a majority of those who voted and 38% of the overall council.

When Cllr Robertson was elected to the new unitary Authority in 2009, he won 42% of the vote, but only 34.5% of his electorate voted. So Cllr Robertson owes his place on the council to securing the support of just 14.3% of the electorate.

When Mr Eustice was elected to Parliament to represent Camborne, Redruth and Hayle on 2010, he won 37.6% of the vote, but only 66.4% of the electorate voted. So Mr Eustice owes his place in Parliament to securing the support of just under 25% of the electorate.

When the Local Government Act secured its second reading in the House of Commons in began the process of forcing councils to use the Leader and Cabinet model. By an extraordinary coincidence, just 73% of MPs voted in that second reading vote.

Democracy isn’t perfect. The position of Cllr Robertson, Mr Eustice or any other elected politician is not invalidated by the turnout in their election or the proportion of the overall vote that they won. But, in turn, they have no right to question the outcome of a vote in council on the basis that some councillors were not present. 

Yet again the rubbish piles up on Ridgegrove

Another week - another unacceptable pile of rubbish at the Ridgegrove Estate collection points.

The photo on the left shows the state of the top area this morning before the scheduled collection was made. The bins are full and rubbish is spilling out onto the pathway and into the street.

Why is this happening? Principally, because although Cory collect twice a week, they insist that Wednesday and Friday are the only days they can do so. The bins are, at most, half full on a Friday and by Wednesday are over-flowing in the way shown.

I have asked the Council to work with Cory as a matter of urgency either to introduce a third collection or, at the very least, to re-time the current collections to make them more even.

I've also asked the Council to take action with Cory about the fly-tipped fridge and other material which is still there more than ten days after they were first reported.