Wednesday, 29 February 2012

New Crossing Delayed Again!

Residents of Launceston will know how difficult and dangerous it can be to cross St Thomas Road. For residents living in the Priory part of town you almost feel like you are taking your life into your hands if you try to walk to the town centre.

For many years, local residents have campaigned to get a safe crossing and I have put forward the case numerous times to council officers and even persuaded cabinet member Graeme Hicks to come to see the difficulties for himself 18 months ago.

We were delighted, therefore, when the council agreed as part of the current year's budget to put in such a crossing. Ever since it was agreed, I've been trying to find out exactly when it would be happening.

We are now entering the final month of the financial year and the work still hasn't been done.

Today I received an email from an officer on a completely different project who coincidentally passed on the news that the crossing is being delayed into the new financial year due to 'a lack of resources in the design group'.

I've therefore written to Cllr Graeme Hicks, the cabinet member for highways, to ask for an explanation. Readers will remember that he sent an intemperate email to officers on the subject of highways works. Following that email, he gave local residents a reassurance that this crossing would be done on time. Similar assurances were also given by council officers.

I want to know why this vital crossing has been delayed and why neither Cllr Hicks nor any of the officers concerned told me or local residents about the delay. I want to know what other projects have been delayed and why on earth there is a lack of resources in the design group. I have also asked for a definitive date for when the work will finally be done.

I will, of course, post any response that I get.

What's going on with the stadium? - UPDATED

Sorry to come back to the issue of the stadium again, but it seems that even the fourth floor bunker at County Hall don't know what is going on.

Today's Laurence Reed show on Radio Cornwall carried an interview with Kevin Heaney, owner of Truro City FC, where he stated that the club were fully prepared to play their part in the stadium project and were ready to sell their Treyew Road ground to a developer to help finance the it. Yet Cornwall Council insists that TCFC is no longer a partner in the enterprise.

At the same time, Cornwall Council is claiming that the developers INOX will be putting a large amount of money into the project - but INOX's boss told Laurence six months ago that they wouldn't.

And then, of course, there is the claim made by Scott Mann that the Tory group twice voted against any council funding for the project but that there is a secret plan to provide up to £16 million of finance.

I've said from the start that if a private company (or group of companies) want to build a stadium then, subject to the usual planning permissions, I'd be all for it. But I don't believe that there should be any public money involved, although I know that others think differently.

Surely the best way forward is to have an open and honest debate of all 123 councillors with no secret documents and no clever wordplay. If the majority believe that there should be some form of public funding then I would go along with this. If not, Cornwall Council should just back away and let the clubs and private businesses get on with it. It would probably end a lot of the confusion.

As a first step though, Cornwall Council needs to come clean about all plans, ideas and proposals for using public money and publish all documents relating to its involvement - whether it be direct funding, guaranteeing loans or financing peripheral aspects of the stadium project such as roads and infrastructure. Someone in the County Hall bunker seems to have an agenda and it is only right and proper that it should be brought out into the open.

UPDATE - Rob Saltmarsh, the MD of the Inox Group, has responded to Bob Egerton's email. You can read it in full on Graham Smith's blog here. I'm happy that Mr Saltmarsh has shown a willingness to engage and have sent him the following:

Dear Mr Saltmarsh
Thank you for your email which answers some of the questions posed. The key issue remains... if Inox has been consistent about not investing its own money in the stadium (and I am happy to accept your word that you have), why on earth should Cornwall Council have stated that you would be investing alongside the College and Pirates?
Would you be happy to waive all confidentiality and agree to Cornwall Council publishing all details of their conversations with you so that we, and the public, can understand what on earth is going on?

I look forward to hearing from you

Alex Folkes

How do we keep everyone on the electoral register?

The proposed move to individual electoral registration throws up a number of challenges - but it is also a move that is being done for the right reason, to lessen the chance of our elections being tainted by fraud.

A few years ago, I was a commentator for the BBC and others during the Birmingham vote fraud scandal when various councillors and others were convicted of running fraud factories. The move to individual voter registration was one of the results. It means that election officials will gather personal identifiers - signatures and so on - which can be used to check that you are actually who you say you are when you cast your ballot.

But individual registration also presents some significant challenges. Whereas one person in each household used to be able to register everyone, each individual will have to fill in a form themselves from the 2014 annual canvass. Experience suggests that young people, people with low literacy and people who rent their homes either from the council or privately will be likely to have lower registration rates.

As chair of Cornwall's Electoral Review Panel, yesterday I met with the lead officer on this project to discuss what could be done to pre-empt the move to individual registration. I don't want to see us suffer a large drop in registration rates and have to play catch up. So we need to be working now with colleges and schools, with social and private landlords and with the council's own housing department to think about how we can make sure everyone is registered.

I am also asking the Council to reach out to local voluntary and community groups, to businesses and to the public to ask for their ideas for how we can make sure everyone who is entitled to be is on the electoral register. As ever with council services, budgets are tight. But I am sure that there are people out there who can come up with ideas of reaching large groups of people at risk of not registering with very cheap communication methods.

If you have any thoughts on this, please get in touch.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Answers (and more questions) about the funding of the stadium

Last week I blogged about the questions raised by the resignation letter of Cllr Scott Mann, the former Deputy Leader of the Conservative group in Cornwall Council. In his letter, Cllr Mann suggested that his group had twice voted not to put an further public money into the project but that there was now a plan by the leader to spend up to £16 million.

I've just had the following reply to my questions of last week:


Statement re Stadium funding

Following recent media reports over the question of funding for the proposed Stadium for Cornwall, the Council would like to make it clear that there has been no proposal to use council tax payers’ money to fund the Stadium’s construction.

A detailed report outlining potential options was considered by Members of the Environment and Economy Overview and Scrutiny committee at its meeting on 22 February. The Council’s Cabinet will be considering this matter at a future meeting.

The Council has not changed its position with regard to the funding for the Stadium for Cornwall project. Suggestions in the media, therefore, that the Council has now agreed to provide up to £15 million of public money to fund the Stadium’s construction are inaccurate.

This is hardly the comprehensive response that those of us who are not part of the Tory group were after. Although there may have been no proposal for public money until now, there is still no guarantee that the subject won't be considered in the future (or, indeed, that it isn't being considered at this moment).

At the same time, another councillor has raised concerns about the company behind the stadium project. Cllr Bob Egerton has just sent the following email to all councillors:

Inox is the organisation that applied for planning permission for the Stadium for Cornwall and is also hoping to develop a large number of houses in that area. You may be curious to find out who Inox really are.

Website
There is a website www.inoxgroup.co.uk
In the section of the website entitled “Projects”, there are 6 pages as follows:
Olympia, Glasgow Coming soon
Truro, Cornwall Coming soon
North Devon Coming soon
Whitby, Yorkshire Coming soon
Sandy, Bedfordshire Coming soon
South Devon Coming soon
Curious that there is no mention of projects that have actually been finished, or even started.
The address for Inox Group is given as The Senate Building, Southernhay Gardens, Exeter. Nice prestigious address. Although the Inox group has ambitions to deliver a £300 million build project in Truro, they are keeping their costs down by not taking a vast amount of office space on a long lease; instead, they are renting a serviced office from Forsyth Business Centre in that building. This could be as little as a work station and a phone line. Very prudent.
In the section “About Us”, there is wording on Our Vision, Our Objectives and Our Prospects, but no mention of any particular individuals or even of any particular limited company. Inox Group is not a registered limited company, although there are a few registered limited companies with the word Inox in the title (more later).
Technically, it is an offence under the Companies Act not to display on a business website the name of the legal organisation, whether it be a sole trader, partnership or limited company that is responsible for the site. In the case of a limited company this should include the proper registered name of the company and the registered number. However, this is probably just an oversight and I expect that Devon Trading Standards have got more pressing issues on their desks to pursue.

Limited companies
The title Inox Group is not specific as to what it encompasses. However, there are 3 limited companies with the first word Inox in their names that have The Senate Building, Exeter as their registered office address. There is also Exemplar Projects (Truro) Ltd. at the same address. Some information about these companies (all in the public domain at Companies House) is as follows.
Inox Property Ltd. incorporated 2008. Last accounts up to 28/2/10 showed a net worth of minus £72k. The following year’s accounts have not yet been submitted and are marked in Companies House as “Overdue”.
Inox Capital Ltd. incorporated 2010. No accounts yet filed. Accounts were due to be filed by 19/2/12, but Companies House has them marked as “Overdue”.
Inox Capital Investment Ltd. incorporated 2010. Accounts to 30/6/11 filed and marked as “Dormant”, i.e. no significant financial transaction had occurred in the period covered by the accounts.
Exemplar Projects (Truro) Ltd. incorporated 2009. Accounts to 30/11/10 filed and marked as “Dormant”.
Mr Robin Saltmarsh is a director of all four of those companies. His fellow directors vary by company, but they all have the surname Saltmarsh.
Mr Robin Saltmarsh is also a director of Cornwall Community Stadium Ltd., the recently formed company that is the planned vehicle for the stadium project. (Co-directors are a Truro College employee and a person with a London address.)
Mr Saltmarsh is also a director of 5 other companies:
Moorlands (Whitby) Ltd.
Sustainable Projects (Sandy) Ltd.
Riversvale Ltd.
Ikona Developments Ltd.
122 Kew Road Ltd.
The accounts for the first two of those companies are marked as dormant. The accounts of the other three are all marked by Companies House as “Overdue”.
So, Mr Saltmarsh is a director of nine companies as well as the Stadium company. Of those nine companies, the accounts for four are dormant, the accounts for the other five are overdue in Companies House.
One could say that being late with the submission of one set of accounts is unfortunate; being late with two sets of accounts could be seen as careless; I am not sure what the right adjective is to describe being late with five sets of accounts.

Inox has promised to make a substantial financial contribution towards the Stadium project. (I cannot tell you how much they have promised because that was in part 2 of the Environment and Economy Scrutiny Committee meeting last week.) The problem is that I do not know where the money is going to come from. It certainly cannot come from within the balance sheets of any of the “Inox Group”. Perhaps they are waiting on a postal order from their auntie?

Curiouser and curiouser.

Cllr Robertson is happy to heap public opprobrium on councillors who are late in paying their council tax. Will he do the same for companies that Cornwall Council is doing business with who are late filing their accounts?

Saturday, 25 February 2012

This Sporting Life

There's a horse running in the 5.30 at Chepstow this afternoon called 'The Mad Robertson'.

When even sport is against you, what hope have you got?

UPDATE - The Mad Robertson came third....

Friday, 24 February 2012

The 16 million pound question

The reason for Scott Mann's resignation as Deputy Leader of the Conservative group (at least, the first reason he gives in his letter) is that there is a secret plan to put council money into the stadium project despite the Conservative group twice voting that there should be no such funding.

At full council on Tuesday, my colleague Doris Ansari asked Chris Ridgers - the Cabinet Member for the Economy - to repeat the assurance given by his predecessor that there would be no more public money for the stadium (beyond the £120k given for the feasibility study).

Chris's reply was rather cryptic. He referred to the debate happening at a scrutiny committee the following day. But if you read the papers for that committee, all you find is a non-answer suggesting that it is unlikely that any public money would be involved. But there was also a confidential paper which I haven't seen (despite asking for it) and I have no idea of its contents.

So did that paper commit the council to spending more money, either directly or as backup to the main partners? In the light of Scott's resignation letter, I think that all councillors, and the public, has a right to know. And so I have sent the following letter to Cllr Ridgers and to Council Leader Alec Robertson:

Hi Chris
On Tuesday, when asked at full council about investment in the stadium project, you said that we should wait for the debate at E&E scrutiny the following day. For those of us unable to make that meeting, all we had to go on was the public paper which seemed to indicate that there would be no further public money going into the project.

Scott's resignation letter today talked about a secret plan to invest up to £16m of public money in the project despite, he said, the Conservative group voting twice against such a plan.

I think that all councillors, and the people of Cornwall, are due an explanation, unequivocally and in the open. Will you give an undertaking that there will be no further public money invested in the stadium project. If not, will you set out the plans and allow all members to vote on them as they were able to when they voted in favour of Fiona's amendment against capital investment as part of last year's budget process.

I look forward to hearing from you

Alex


Scott Mann resigns and questions Robertson's leadership

Andrew Wallis has published the resignation letter from the Deputy Leader of the Conservative group - Scott Mann - to Alec Robertson, Leader of the Tory group and Leader of Cornwall Council.

Scott certainly isn't pulling his punches as the following excerpts show:

"I’m afraid that the straw that broke the camels back is the funding of the stadium for Cornwall. Although the group are generally supportive of the stadium they have made it clear on two separate occasions that no tax payer funding should be used. However a report is now being presented asking for 12-16 million pounds worth of funding."

"I am of the view that the aims and ambitions of the council need to reflect our supported will as a group. It is very apparent that this has not been the case here. Another example would be the CDC review after our group asked for greater probity and control with their accounts further funding is being put in place with no control over spend."
"There appears to be separation from what the group are saying and what you are doing."

"It is my view that your leadership style is one that is not conducive to democratic decision making"


As the saying goes - wow! Where this leaves Alec Robertson and his leadership of the council is anyone's guess.


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Nominees wanted for special Olympic event

Cornwall Council Chairman Pat Harvey has announced that she will be hosting a special civic event in Truro Cathedral to celebrate the passing of the Olympic Torch through Cornwall on May 19th.

Pat writes:

"I would like to open the Civic Event up to those who would not normally have the opportunity to attend such events. I am therefore asking all 123 Members to send in nominations. Please could you nominate members of your community that you believe deserve the opportunity to attend this event. I am not restricting the number of nominations, but should we exceed expected numbers, all names will be sorted by constituency and put in to a hat to be drawn at random.

The deadline for me to send in nominations is March 26th. If you know of anyone in the Launceston area who ought to be nominated, please get in touch and explain why you think they deserve to go.

You can contact me using the details on the right.


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Changing the way we govern ourselves

Cornwall Council has agreed to set up a review of the way it governs itself. In common with most larger councils, we follow the 'leader and cabinet' model in that we elect a leader to serve for the full four years of the council and give him or her the power to choose their cabinet.

It is the cabinet which makes the key decisions with all other councillors restricted to quasi-judicial functions such as planning and licensing, to scrutinising decisions already taken and to voting on the budget once per year.

Many councillors have suggested that this concentration of power into the hands of just ten people is not the right way to take decisions and that the people who elected us expect us to be able to take a role in all decision-making. For many, a return to the committee system whereby all councillors take part by being an equal member of a decision-making committee is preferable.

I think both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. There is no doubt that the leader and cabinet model can be run in a better and more consultative way than it is in Alec Robertson's post-democratic regime. And the committee system can result in officers having more power than members over key decisions.

There are also hybrid models as councils such as Kingston and Sutton are pioneering and these will need to be looked at too.

What is clear is that a review is right and it needs to take account of the thoughts not just of councillors but also of the public who expect us to both represent them and have influence over the key decisions.

But changing - if a change is recommended - won't be that straightforward. The new rules require a referendum to be held which could cost up to £1 million if it isn't conducted in conjunction with another poll. And important as governance structures are, I don't think that the public would thank us for spending so much money on our own internal issues at the same time as cuts (or even reductions) are being made.

Cornwall's Budget (with apologies to the English language)

Today Cornwall Council set its budget for the coming financial year. The central plank of the proposal is a Liberal Democrat one - to accept the government grant which means a freeze in council tax.

The Conservative-led administration has also accepted Lib Dem demands on saving local bus services and protecting public toilets from closure - both of which are very good news.

Astoundingly, the Leader of the Council made the claim that there had been no cuts to either leisure or library services in Cornwall last year or this. I challenged him on this, pointing out the cut to the hours of virtually every library in Cornwall and the dumping of Camelford Leisure Centre and Bude Sea Pool by the council. In response, the Leader attempted to justify his statement saying that these were reductions, rather than cuts - abuse of language which a quick check of a thesaurus would disprove.

The Liberal Democrat group on the council voted in favour of the aspects of the budget that dealt with the council tax freeze. There were twelve members (mainly independents and MK) who voted against the budget and six who abstained. Of particular interest is that there were two cabinet members who failed to back this key plank of the budget - Neil Burden abstained and Julian German voted against.

The Lib Dems also voted in favour of the housing investment plan. We aren't completely convinced that the administration has worked this plan out fully, but we do think they are heading in the right direction and we were happy to support it. Similarly, I also backed the capital investment plan.

Where we disagreed with the administration is over their business plan - their manifesto, in effect - and their medium term financial strategy. We do not agree with the vision that the Conservatives have for Cornwall - there are far too many whiz bang schemes and not enough concentration on jobs and high quality core services. We also do not believe that they are competent enough to run it properly. You only have to look at the failure of the car parking budget for an example.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Stadium for Cornwall - whisper it quietly, but progress is being made

The papers have been published for next week's scrutiny meeting which is set to be the first chance for councillors outside the Cabinet to consider the plans for a stadium for Cornwall. And whilst I still believe that there are many questions which have not been answered and claims which do not add up, there do appear to be some reassurances given to those of us who have, until now, opposed the project.

I've been of the opinion that Cornish taxpayers should not be footing the bill for a stadium which would be (almost) exclusively for the use of two sports clubs - however much we might want them to succeed and prosper. But, all other things being equal, if private finance can be found for the project then I'd be very supportive. Whilst there were promises made by the former cabinet member responsible for the issue, her replacement has not made the same categoric statements.

So what's new in this paper?

It's mainly the fact that we have got one stage closer to a commitment from the Council not to be putting any more money into the project. The three principle partners - Truro and Penwith College, the Cornish Pirates and Inox (the developers) have apparently said that they will be putting up the £15 million or so that it will cost to build. I'm not yet convinced that we have extracted a firm 'never' to the question of more public money, but at least we now have more confidence of where the money will be coming from. This is a very positive step.

The second key aspect of the report is the news that the stadium will feature either a 'Desso' or '4G' pitch - both of which are far harder wearing than a standard grass pitch. The latter is totally artificial and would enable a degree of community use that would not be possible with a purely grass pitch played on by two professional teams. The only trouble is that the FA currently don't allow matches to be played on artificial surfaces, although they are considering the issue again.

That's the positive news, but questions still remain.

First up there's the Economic Impact Assessment. As I said before, this is simply laughable in parts with claims of £2.6 million extra income for Cornwall and 109 new jobs. I'll be pressing for a much more realistic assessment at the scrutiny meeting next week. I don't doubt that there will be economic benefits, but we shouldn't be lying to ourselves.

Secondly, there's the whole range of planning issues. Although the stadium got past the first hurdle, there are a wide range of issues still to be addressed, not least the case being made by Truro Airfield that putting houses so close to a runway used by single engined aircraft may not be safe. I'm quite glad that I don't sit on a planning committee which will have to wade through these questions.

There is also the mysterious confidential paper which no backbench councillor has yet seen and which might be significant (or might be pretty inconsequential).

But the steps that have been made are positive ones and I hope that next Wednesday gives us some more.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Cabinet votes through budget as Jim Currie claims the Gordon Brown mantle

Cornwall Council's cabinet today approved their budget proposal which will be voted on by the full council next Tuesday. They also approved a new housing investment strategy which is a tiny step in the right direction for Cornwall but has already been condemned by some as too little, too late.

The budget itself is largely the same as was agreed by the council back in November. Two significant changes, however, are:

  • the new duty to provide free childcare for two year olds in lower income families - the cost of about £1.8 million will be met by a government grant. This is very welcome but the temptation will be for the council to seek to commit less than the full amount to childcare and save some for the general pot
  • a saving of virtually £8 million through the strong performance of the collection fund in the last two years. This is the money collected in historic debts and the intention is to use this money to bed in the council tax freeze that the Liberal Democrats proposed in November.

But the support for a council tax freeze was hardly overwhelming from the Cabinet. Cllr Currie said he was only supporting it because of the collection fund money and Cllr Burden refused to vote for the budget package because he does not support the freeze.

During the debate Cllr Currie said that he wanted to be thought of like former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. What I think he meant was that 'prudence' is his watchword. I'm not sure that he's ready for all the other comparisons.

The housing investment strategy is welcome, but it is wrong that it has taken three years to come to fruition - three years in which Cornwall has failed to build enough affordable homes for local families to rent. There isn't a lot of detail in the paper - which was stuck on as appendix four to the budget rather than being considered in its own right.

In particular, what is missing is a commitment to make sure developers pull their weight and don't shrink from providing the affordable homes that we need. Portfolio holder Mark Kaczmarek gave a pretty negative answer when asked to take this on board and, when asked to commit some of the council's additional money to new house building he refused to do so.

The whole debate moves on to next Tuesday when the vote will be taken and council tax set for the coming year.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Prayers off the Council agenda

It seems that prayers will not be forming part of the official Cornwall Council agenda for at least the next two months following the high court ruling in a case brought over Bideford Town Council.

Council Chairman Pat Harvey, after consultation with Monitoring Officer Richard Williams, has decided that the ruling means that Cornwall Council would be out of line with the law if it continued with its practice of having prayers as the first item on the agenda for full council meetings. And so she has decided to remove prayers from the meetings in February and March whilst waiting for the details of the ruling to come down.

Instead, at 10.20am on full council day there will be a chance for members to meet for a period of reflection in the council chamber before the meeting gets underway at 10.30am.

As someone who does not have a religious faith, I tend to stay outside of the chamber during prayers and only take my seat after they have finished. The same is true of around a dozen of my colleagues. I think that this system has worked pretty well for the three years that the council has been in existence.

I'd prefer that prayers were not formally on the agenda (particularly when we, as councillors, are formally 'summoned' to attend) but I have no problem with a short religious event taking place before the meeting for those who wish to attend.

From the reactions of my colleagues to a local newspaper request for thoughts on the subject, it seems that a majority are in favour of prayer remaining a part of full council day. But thanks to the Bideford case, it looks like we might not get to make that decision.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Investing in more council housing in Cornwall

At yesterday's scrutiny meeting we discussed the shortage of council housing in Cornwall. There are more than 23,000 people on the housing waiting list, of whom 430 have a local connection with Launceston.

The changes to the way council rents are collected means that Cornwall Council has a lot more control over the system. We also have the ability to borrow more money and, because of the low rate of interest that the council pays, it makes sense to borrow almost up to the limit and invest this money into our current housing stock and new building.

That's why the cabinet member has today announced a new strategy for investment in housing in Cornwall and it's very welcome - at least in concept. What we need to do now is to understand better what it will mean in detail.

One of the key concerns will be the balance of investment in making the existing houses better compared with building new properties. Many of our council houses need work on double glazing, out of date kitchens and bathrooms and providing modern heating systems. What should be the relative priorities for this work compared with getting people off the waiting list and into a home for the first time?

The second issue is the type of new properties that can be built. All too often the new social rented homes are one and two bedroom flats and houses. Whilst these would satisfy most demand, there is a stand out need for larger houses. There are currently 24 families with a connection to Launceston waiting for a four or five bedroom property and only nine 4 bedroom properties available in our town, all of which are currently occupied. Other providers are especially unwilling to build these larger social rented houses and so the burden will fall on the council to make sure they are available.

But the council will only ever be able to build a small proportion of new social rented houses. Most will come from housing developers and the level of affordable housing they are required to build as part of the deal for their planning permission. Cornwall Council is meant to be moving towards a requirement for 50% of all new houses being affordable across most of Cornwall and 40% in the biggest towns. But developers are not even being asked for this level at the moment and the new strategy talks about achieving roughly 20%. I think the Council needs to get tough with developers to make sure that they contribute their fair share to reducing Cornwall's housing waiting list.

That was close...

The people of the South Ward of Launceston voted today in a by-election for the town council caused by the sad death of Olver Harris.

The result was:

Launceston Town Council South Ward

Maurice Davey (Lib Dem) 160 votes 28.67%
Leighton Penhale (Ind) 157 votes 28.14%
Anna Duke (Ind) 104 votes 18.64%
Susan Roberts Alfar (Labour) 73 votes 13.08%
Ashley Crapp (Ind) 64 votes 11.47%

Spoilt 2

Turnout 18.25% (no poll cards)

Lib Dem gain from independent

Obviously it's always good to win, but three votes was a very close margin. Huge congratulations to Maurice who will, I'm sure, be an excellent town councillor. Commiserations to the other candidates, particularly Leighton. I can't imagine how it feels to lose by such a close margin and I feel for him. With the whole town council up for election in just 15 months time, I hope that all the losing candidates consider standing again at that time.

I've noted in the result above that there were no poll cards issued for this election. The resultant turnout of 18.25% is pretty poor. When you consider that just about half of those who did vote did so by post (the postal vote turnout was well over 50%), you see that the turnout on the day (albeit a cold February day) was truly awful. I know that a town council by-election is not the most exciting contest, but it is still important and I know that many people were simply unaware of when the poll was taking place. I think that poll cards should be mandatory for all such contests, even if they do cost a bit of money to send out.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Concerns over Launceston One Stop Shop moving out of reach of many residents

This morning I made the case at a council scrutiny meeting that the planned move of Launceston's One Stop Shop to the library building must not be made at the expense of people being able to use it.

The One Stop Shop is going to move as a money saving measure that has already seen the Tourist Information Centre taken over by the town council. I am concerned that the library building is inaccessible for many people with mobility problems as it is up a sharp slope, so if the OSS moves there then many people who can get to it at the moment won't be able to in the future.

I know that there are local residents who are already cut off from the library unless they can find someone to drive them to the door. The Little Red Bus do a great job of getting people from door to door three days per week. But this isn't the solution for everybody. Neither is being able to get services online or on the telephone.

Even driving to the library can be tricky as there is only limited parking and a single disabled bay which the council now wants to book out in advance. The Council has also started proceedings which could lead to charges being imposed on people parking at the library - although this is not planned at the moment.

So I will be meeting with the Communities Director to discuss the planned move and what can be done to make the library building properly accessible to all. I'm happy to see money being saved by the move, but we should not be scrimping on making council services properly accessible.

Free Parking offer on 29th February

The local newspapers of the Cornish and Devon Media group have started a campaign to get people to value their town centres more. As part of this, they have teamed up with Cornwall Council to offer a free parking day in towns across Cornwall on February 29th.

Both the campaign and the free parking are very good things. But my understanding is that Cornwall Council's first reaction to the approach from the newspapers was to worry about the loss of revenue. This shows once again how they view town centre car parks as a cash cow rather than a service and how they have built their budgets around a certain level of income (and other services like road safety schemes get cut when they don't achieve their parking targets).

I'm glad that Cornwall Council eventually decided to participate in the scheme and I hope that local people will make the best possible use of the offer - coming to our town centres and doing their shopping there. Many local shops have a huge amount to offer at reasonable costs, but they usually don't even get a look in as people are content to make a single trip to a supermarket and do all their shopping there.

I hope also that Cornwall Council take a look at the usage of the car parks during the free day (albeit a Wednesday in February) and think again about the ever rising cost of car parking. Of course we cannot afford them to be free all day, every day. But if the charges were more reasonable then we might see a lot more people using them and actually end up with more money coming into council coffers. Better for both the Council and the town to have 100 cars at £1 than 25 cars at £2.

I hope that the newspaper campaign is a success and I hope that everybody possible takes advantage of the free parking day on the 29th February by getting hold of the token that will be published in the Cornish Guardian, West Briton or Cornishman.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Young people consultation event

This evening I attended another consultation event with young people fro Launceston, Bude and Callington. Many thanks to Chris Marsh and everyone from the youth service for putting it on.

The main part of the evening was a 'speed dating' style conversation with small groups of young people around various subjects.

Talking about transport, young people highlighted the high cost of getting around as the biggest issue as well as frequency and difficult to read timetables.

On the subject of the image that young people have, they suggested using the local press more to generate a better impression by highlighting the positive things that local groups do as well as putting on more events.

Talking about how to improve their social life, there was a general call in all areas for more places that young people can meet, out of the rain and not involving pubs. There was a lot of appreciation for Bude's Friday Night Splash with Launceston wanting to replicate it.

Discussing how to make their communities safer, young people from all three areas highlighted the problem of badly lit paths as well as dangerous traffic.

We went on to discuss what could make each town better and what we are more proud of in each town. There's a lot of ideas for the Cornwall and town councillors who came along to take away and I have already started following up the requests I received.

Council Leader wrong over twitter ban says legal officer

Cornwall Council's Monitoring Officer has written to all councillors to say the following:

"Blogging and Tweeting from Council meetings

You will be aware that the Leader indicated at the last meeting of the Cabinet on 25 January that blogging and tweeting from meetings of the Council was covered by the Broadcasting Code of Practice (“the Code”) approved at the last meeting of Council on 17 January and that prior approval for undertaking such activity was required in accordance with the Code.

At the request of the Leader, I have reviewed the position and although the issue is arguable, I am satisfied that, on balance, the Code does not apply to such activities and Members do not require prior approval.

However, this issue has generated considerable comment and debate about the use of blogging and tweeting and the impact that such activities and use of ICT generally during meetings has upon the reputation of the Council and the effective conduct of meetings.

I anticipate, therefore, that a report will be brought to the Council meeting on 27 March considering whether any form of protocol or guidelines should be introduced to address some of the concerns expressed by Members whilst ensuring that the benefits of such activity are maintained.

In the meantime, Members are reminded that the Code of Conduct covers blogging and tweeting as much as all other conduct whilst acting in their capacity as a Member."

In short - Council Leader Alec Robertson was wrong to arbitrarily 'ban' tweeting and blogging in council meeting as he claimed to two weeks ago. And whilst the Monitoring Officer says that the issue is arguable, it seem pretty clear that if the Leader wanted to take action then he should have at least consulted with the council's top legal officer before bringing the council into such disrepute by seeking to become Cornwall's censor-in-chief.*

I welcome the chance to discuss the use of computers and other devices as well as blogs and social media as part of the council meeting next month. It will give members a chance to showcase how council meetings and decisions are improved by being in touch with our electorate during debates. It will also enable us to highlight the appalling double standards of the Leader himself who showed such disrespect to members of the public and to important issues by prioritising lobbying for awards above key issues such as safeguarding. He then had the nerve to attack those of us who commented on this in a forum where we were not permitted to answer back.

* Not just my opinion. According to Western Morning News Deputy News Editor Scott Harrison:
Sad thing about meeting's many good points is they are now lost to story about new Twitter ban. Blame Alec.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Subscribe to my regular e-newsletter

I've started producing a regular monthly(ish) email newsletter focusing on my work for the people of Launceston as a Cornwall Councillor.

The first edition went out last week and included a review of the annual Launceston debate, news about the adoption of Kensey Valley Meadow and about the application to build houses on the police station overflow car park in Moorland Road.

So if you are interested in receiving this newsletter, please sign up by clicking on the link below:


Subscribe to my newsletter


*I say monthly-ish because I'm not going to bombard you with non-news. If there's something urgent and important to say then it might come out more frequently, but if there is little going on then I won't clog up your inbox.

Cut transport costs for young unemployed says new report

Young unemployed people in rural areas need help with transport costs to find work according to a new report produced by a commission chaired by former Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Mr Miliband was asked by the voluntary sector group ACEVO to look into the issue and their report has been published today. The St Mary's area of Bodmin has been identified as the worst in Cornwall for youth unemployment and is one of 600 wards in the UK where youth unemployment rates are double the national average.

Mr Miliband points out that getting to interviews can cost a huge amount (and not all employers refund this) and that transport costs can be a demotivator in applying for work experience placements.

Cornwall Council has taken a significant step in the right direction in creating a Cornish EMA to help those in school or college, but the scheme won't help people who are not in employment, education or training. The idea put forward by Mr Miliband is for councils to do a deal with bus companies to cut transport costs for young people who are in unpaid training or looking for work.

Whilst there are jobs being advertised, there are sometimes hundreds of applicants for each vacancy and, with an average of 4.6 people for each vacant post in Cornwall, young people need all the help we can give to gain enough experience and skills to have a chance of getting those jobs.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Uncollected rubbish

There are quite a few homes in Launceston whose rubbish was not collected on schedule today.

I'm told by the Council that they had three vans break down and, although they caught up with some of the missed collections, they will not be able to complete the job until Monday. Apologies to householders affected.

Bodmin Town Council candidates announced

There will be a by-election for Bodmin Town Council on March 1st.

The four candidates are:

Paul Ellis, Mebyon Kernow
Jake Lyne, Liberal Democrat
Robbie Taylor, Retired Cornwall Fire Service Office - Independent
Christopher Wilkes, Conservative

Jake Lyne, the Lib Dem candidate is 18 and as a result this is his first foray into politics. He's hugely enthusiastic to provide a voice for younger people on the town council. As a police volunteer and fire cadet he already puts a lot into the local community as a volunteer and I think he'd be a great addition to the town council there.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Launceston College seeking Academy Status - UPDATED

Launceston College has announced that it is to seek to change its designation from a local authority maintained school to a Foundation School with an associated Trust. Shortly after this change, it proposes to convert to Academy status from September 2012.

This is potentially a significant change in the nature of our town's local school. As an academy, the college would take control of its own admission arrangements and, as a foundation school, it would own its own land.

One idea that has been floated is that the college and local primary schools all work more closely together as a local trust. Each school could retain its own autonomy as an individual trust but could also be governed by an over-arching trust. This would have the effect of helping to safeguard the future of some of our smaller village schools where low pupil numbers cause concern.

I don't know the motivation behind the College's proposal but I know that there will be some who are concerned about the idea that it might be a means towards selling off parts of their land, particularly their playing fields. UPDATE - I have been assured by the chair of governors that this is not being contemplated and I'm grateful to him for this clarification.

Local residents will be able to hear more about the proposal and ask questions at a public meeting to be held at 8pm on Wednesday 22nd February at the College. Parents of those pupils at College are invited to a separate meeting half an hour earlier on the same night.

Who should pay for new schools?

The main subject under discussion at today's education scrutiny committee was how to pay for new schools and how much contribution should developers be expected to make.

The issue is a complex one but, put simply, if a developer builds lots of new houses then there is likely to be additional pressure on local schools in the form of new pupils and the need for more space to teach them in. In extreme cases there might be the need for an entire new school.

At the moment, Cornwall Council takes an education contribution of £1825 per qualifying dwelling. (In simple terms, a qualifying dwelling is one which is sold on the open market rather than being provided as an 'affordable home'.) At the other end of the scale, the committee was told that Essex County Council takes a contribution of £17,000 per open market dwelling. The proposal for Cornwall is to increase the requirement to £2736. That still wouldn't provide the full amount that it takes to provide the education and classrooms, but it is a better contribution and eases the burden on taxpayers who have to provide the rest through local tax.

The concern is that many developers are not paying their full share because of the current state of the housing market. If the houses are built then there will still be the pupils, but some developers are claiming that the demands for contributions threaten the viability of the building project. But any amount that a developer doesn't have to pay is an extra cost that taxpayers do.

So I asked the committee to agree a statement calling on developers to pay their fair share and they agreed to do so. In due course the housing market will pick up and developers will be better able to afford the education contribution that Cornwall needs from them. Although Cornwall needs more affordable homes, it might be better to see developments delayed than to heap much larger demands on Cornish taxpayers.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Meeting with Police to discuss Moorland Road housing application

This morning I met with one of Cornwall Council's planning officers for our area and a representative of the Police Authority's property section to discuss the application to build two four bedroom houses on Moorland Road on the land currently used as a car park by the Police Station.

I've had a large number of local residents get in touch with me very concerned about this proposal - particularly about the impact on the local streets if 15 police station car park spaces are lost.

The application claims that lots of police jobs have moved recently to Bodmin or been lost altogether. They claim that they need fewer spaces and only need to create nine new spaces on the remainder of their land. I know that local residents don't agree with this and, despite the cut in the numbers based at the station, they say that there is still considerable congestion and that the problem is even worse at the beginning and end of the school day. And, whilst there has been a recent cut in the number of staff based in Launceston, there is nothing to say that this won't go back up again in the future.

I suggested to the Police Authority representative that they need to do more to prove that the overflow car park is no longer needed and that its loss won't cause additional pressures on local roads. As things stand, I have said that I cannot support this application and will call it to the formal committee to decide.

If you have a view on this application, please contact me.