Thursday, 29 March 2012

Sign up to my email newsletter

The latest edition of my monthly newsletter will be going out tomorrow. It will feature news on my trip to Pakistan, the pasty tax campaign as well as what is going on in Launceston and Cornwall Council.

Signing up couldn't be easier - just click here.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Pasty Tax update

While I've been away, there have been some good developments in the pasty tax campaign.

First up, we're approaching 5000 members of the Facebook group.

John Ault, who registered the government e-petition, has also produced a hard copy version to download. If you support this campaign and are able to ask local shops and bakeries to display a copy of this then it can get thousands more people involved with our campaign.

My own local MP, Dan Rogerson, has also joined the campaign.

Stephen Gilbert MP has written to the Chancellor asking for a meeting with pasty manufacturers to discuss the impact on their business and on the Cornish economy of the proposal.

Stephen said:

"The pasty industry employs thousands of people in Cornwall and is worth millions of pounds to the Cornish economy. We believe that adding VAT will undermine the industry and are calling for foods that have significantly advanced Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in Europe, such as the Cornish pasty, to be exempt from this proposal."

“These proposals could hit the pasty industry greatly. I’m determined to find a way for the Pasty to be exempt from this tax and protect the industry that brings millions to the Cornish economy and directly employs thousands of local people.”



Monday, 26 March 2012

Not quite meeting the Pakistani cricket team

I'm currently in Islamabad in Pakistan working for the British Council on an education advocacy project with a group of six young people from the UK and 20 young people from Pakistan who are the steering group for a project called IlmPossible.

There was a recent update of the Pakistani constitution which added in Article 25a which guarantees the right to free state education for all children aged 5-16. The trouble is that the delivery of this is down to provincial governments and many people simply don't know that it is a right. Many others are discouraged from taking up their right or don't believe that education is important. The IlmPossible group exists to publicise and campaign for this right to be taken up.

We want to share our experiences and help them as well as learn from them and put together a joint UK-Pakistan project which can run in parallel in both countries.

I'll write more about the project itself at a later date, but the highlight of the first training day was a visit (just an hour we were told) to an event where members of the Pakistani cricket team were meeting groups of orphans who had been taking part in a sports week.

I don't know what we were expecting, but it certainly wasn't 2800 children aged 4-8 from all over Pakistan who have all been given the opportunity to take part in a variety of sports based activity and this week has been the end of programme event where they all came together to play against each other.

The idea behind this, as explained to us by one of the organisers, is that these children can easily feel that they are marginalised by society. They are certainly some of the most socially disadvantaged in any society. The programme manager also said that an additional fear is that some might turn to the extremists and become the next generation of terrorists and suicide bombers. Making sure they engage in education and social activities is one way to encourage them to feel part of society and make the best of themselves as well as to lessen the chances of them being drawn into extremism.

From a start with just a single child, the organisation has grown in quick time to the 2800 that were present today (last year there were 1300).

It was fantastic to watch as they received their trophies and medals, to talk to them and to the organisers about the project. (It was just a pity that they were so clued up about the relative merits of the Pakistani and English cricket teams in the recent test series!)

The star guests at the event were members of the Pakistani cricket team. Unfortunately, they arrived after we had to go. We held on and held on with the promise that they would meet us for a photo. Unfortunately, when the time came, they didn't make it over to us for the photo as the local media were engulfing them. (But given that they were there to see the children, that's probably fair enough.)

Hugely enjoyable and I learned a lot. I would hope that this sort of project is something that the UK foreign aid budget would invest in. A scheme which provides education for a marginalised group and has the additional specific aim of reducing the danger of the young people being radicalised is surely a good investment.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Pasty Tax round-up

It's been a hectic 24 hours working with many others to try to stop the imposition of 20% VAT on pasties.

Late on Thursday night I noticed that the small print of George Osborne's statement contained the implication that VAT would be applied to pasties sold through bakeries and supermarkets for the first time. I wrote a blog post about it and scheduled it to run first thing on Friday morning.

I wasn't alone. Twitter-user @MrsTrevithick also saw this and tweeted leading to Rob Simmons also blogging. Gregg's the bakers also pledged to fight the tax which would hit them hard (their shares fell by £20m following the budget announcement).

I also set up the Facebook campaign group with the outside hope that we might get a thousand members by the end of the day. In fact, by the time I went to bed last night there were 2500 members and it was still growing.

As a result the local media picked it up. This is Cornwall, the Packet, Radio Cornwall and Atlantic FM all ran the story and this led to the nationals also joining in with both the Sun and Daily Mail running the story today, alongside the Western Morning News.

During the budget debate in the House of Commons yesterday, both Andrew George and Stephen Gilbert raised the issue and last night I made the case to Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander during a Lib Dem tele-conference.

Where are we now?

The VAT changes, including the pasty tax, are out for public consultation. This means that you can have your say. Please do by May 4th. The email to write to is david.roberts4@hmrc.gsi.gov.uk

The results of the survey will be fed through to ministers before MPs vote on the changes in the summer. Any changes will come into force in October.

What else can you do?

Most importantly, please have your say in the consultation. But you can also sign an e-petition set up on the Government website. And please join the Facebook group and encourage your family and friends to do so.

Regional Pay update

Even though an investigation of regional pay for public sector workers was announced by the Chancellor in the budget, it seems not every minister is a fan:

“I think imposing regional variations in pay would be completely wrong and it wouldn't work"
Vince Cable

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Pasty Tax - how to have your say

Many thanks to Rob Simmons who has found the details of how to have your say on the Pasty Tax.

The simplest way is to email david.roberts4@hmrc.gsi.gov.uk

Alternatively, please write to:

David Roberts
HMRC
VAT Projects Team
3C/10, 100 Parliament Street,
London,
SW1A 2BQ

A summary of responses will be published and the responses considered before a final version of the legislation is laid before Parliament in the summer.
http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/budget2012/vat-con-4801.pdf

Say no to the Pasty Tax - now on Facebook

I've just set up a 'Say No to the Pasty Tax' group on Facebook to build support for the campaign to save one of Cornwall's biggest manufacturing sectors (and thousands of jobs) from a 20% VAT hike.

If you support the campaign, whatever your politics, please join the group by clicking here or searching for Say No to the Pasty Tax on Facebook.

The 'pasty tax' needs to be dropped

Plans by the Government to introduce VAT on hot takeaway food from bakeries and supermarkets will actually mean a pasty tax which will cost Cornwall jobs.

Cornwall is rightly proud of the pasty - and pasty makers worked hard with Lib Dem MEP Graham Watson to get EU protected status for it. But adding 20% VAT to the price will inevitably see a drop in sales with no extra money going to the baker. Lower sales will mean job losses in areas which cannot afford them.

The Government has said that they are consulting on this proposal. I hope that they are genuinely going to listen to what people say about the impact on the Cornish economy and that they decide that a pasty tax is a bad idea.

I still think that the budget contained very good news for most Cornish residents, but this is one of the details which I hope is changed before it is too late.


Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Budget brings tax cut to 170,000 in Cornwall - UPDATED

More than 19,000 people in Cornwall will be taken out of the income tax system thanks to today's budget which took forward the Lib Dem policy of raising tax thresholds. Almost 170,000 more will have got a tax cut as a result of the changes.

The biggest demand of the Lib Dems when we entered the coalition government was for a rise in the income tax threshold so that it reaches £10,000 by the time of the next general election. There have been two tranches in the two budgets to date and today the Chancellor announced a third.

The rise of £1100 next April will put another £220 back into the pockets of most workers. The total amount of tax savings will rise to £550 per year.

At the other end of the scale, the new mansion tax - a stamp duty of 7% on the sale of houses worth more than £2m and 15% when these are owned by corporations - was also a Lib Dem demand. We said that the top rate of tax could not be cut (as the Tories demanded) unless the rich were made to pay more of their fair share. Personally, I would have liked to keep the 50p top rate, but the cut to 45p will bring benefits to the richest 1% which will be out-stripped by five to one by the additional tax burdens.

So where does the tipping point come in terms of who is better off and who worse? According to one study* (and it all depends on your personal circumstances such as smoking, driving, children etc) it looks like if you earn £41,650 you're fractionally better off; earn £42,100 and you will be fractionally worse off.

It's not a perfect budget - being in coalition with the Tories meant that some of their preoccupations with the mega-rich had to be accommodated. But overall it will being benefits to millions of people and be paid for in the main by millionaires.

UPDATE - In all the excitement, I forgot to mention regional pay scales. It was and remains a stupid idea that will harm Cornwall immensely. I'm glad to see that Lib Dem MP for St Austell and Newquay Stephen Gilbert has vowed to oppose it.

*Study by the Guardian datablog team.

Delays and mis-communications

This morning I had a meeting with Cornwall Council's Highways and Parking boss Cllr Graeme Hicks and a senior officer to discuss various delays and problems in the Launceston area.

First up was a delay to a number of improvements to roads and parking around town. These changes range from new disabled bays to residents parking schemes in Western Road, Kensey Hill and Race Hill. These were originally meant to be put out for formal consultation in October last year but were then delayed (with no explanation) until March. Only at the beginning of this week were local councillors told that the consultation had been delayed until May.

There can often be good reasons why schemes like this are delayed - but Cornwall Council has lost credibility by failing to keep local people and elected councillors informed.

I've asked officers to tell me why the delays happened and to make sure that there is better communication to residents and councillors in future. I've also asked for the consultation in Launceston to go ahead as soon as possible with no further unexplained delays.

Secondly, I raised the issue of the delay to the new pedestrian crossing at St Thomas Road / Newport Square. This was built into the work schedule for the current financial year and has simply not appeared. Again - there may be valid explanations for delay, but keeping communities in the dark is not acceptable. I've asked for an explanation for the delay and a guaranteed timetable for the works to be completed.

(I also raised the issue of the increased parking charges and the damage they are doing to our town centre. I was told that officers wanted to see the results of the first full year of the new charges - in May - before they would consider action.)

Cornwall Council named and shamed over FoI performance - UPDATED

Cornwall Council has been told that it's performance in responding the Freedom of Information requests is not satisfactory and the authority must improve its performance. The Information Commissioner has criticised the performance of the council and five other public bodies.

In a statement, the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said:

"Six authorities fell below the required standard and have been told to make changes or risk formal enforcement action."

It's regrettable that Cornwall Council has fallen so far below the acceptable standard that they have to be named and shamed in this way, particularly as the Leader so often preaches about 'openness and transparency'.

We have a 'member champion' for freedom of information and there was an 'Openness and Transparency Working Group' but they appear to have achieved little in the face of the bunker mentality of Cornwall Council.

This particular criticism reflects a pretty narrow measure - formally submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act and regulations. These are pretty complex things and cost the council money as they have to be noted and checked at various stages. The council is quite right to say that it makes far more sense if people submit their requests informally. But experience shows that the council is committed to a clandestine culture and often tries to weasel out of giving proper answers to questions (and sometimes takes months to reply). It's therefore not surprising that many people resort to formal FoI requests as these have a defined timetable and requirement to give the whole answer.

UPDATE: Council Leader Alec Robertson has claimed at today's Cabinet meeting that this performance has improved significantly. But not so significantly that the Information Commissioner should decide not to issue this very public warning.

New recycling system - your questions answered

At last night's Launceston Town Council there were a number of questions about the new recycling system that is being introduced from April 2nd across Cornwall.

Q. Why is the system changing?
A. Cornwall Council inherited the waste and recycling role from six different district councils all of which had their own contracts and ways of working. Combining into a single contract will save a lot of money for taxpayers. It's worth the pain of the reorganisation process.

Q. Will the same range of materials be collected?
A. Yes. There will be no cut in the range of recyclable materials collected. With my fellow Lib Dems, I have been pressing to get the range widened to include tetra-paks and other plastics and food waste.

Q. What if I haven't got my bags and boxes yet?
A. If you haven't received your new recycling bags and boxes then please call the council on 0300 1234 141 (calls are charged at the same rate as calls to 01 or 02 numbers*).

Q. When will the new system start?
A. The new contract starts on Monday April 2nd.

Q. Will collection days change?
A. Yes. Many collection days across Launceston will change. If you want to check when your collection day will be then call 0300 1234 141 or enter your postcode on the council's website here.

Q. I'm concerned about how bulky or heavy the new bags and boxes will be when full.
A. If carrying bags or boxes might be a problem for you or someone you know, please contact the Council on 0300 1234 141 to discuss how to make things easier. This may include doorstep (rather than kerbside) collections.

If you have any other questions, please get in touch.

*Apologies that the original post suggested that 0300 calls are free from landlines. They aren't but are charged at the same rate as calls to 01... and 02... numbers

Monday, 19 March 2012

Cornwall Council puts increased cemetery fees on hold

Steve Double, the new Cabinet Member for Environment and Shared Services, has received a lot of flak for the Council's proposed new bereavement policy. As part of this policy, cemetery fees in much of Cornwall are facing a massive rise. However, he has just sent out the following email to all councillors:

Further to my recent email, I have today taken the decision to put the implementation of the new policy and scale of fees for our Bereavement Service on hold. As a result it will now not be implemented on 1st April.

I have now had the opportunity to listen to the feedback from providers of funeral services as well as the concerns raised by fellow members. This has highlighted a number of issues including the increases in the fees. Therefore, I have decided to take some time to review the policy in the light of the concerns expressed to ensure it is right for Cornwall before it takes effect.

Once I have had time to consider the issues raised I will then ensure members are informed before the policy is implemented. As a result of this decision the briefing arranged for 29th March will now not go ahead.

We will be writing to Funeral Directors and other providers to advise them of this decision.

Regards

Steve Double

Cornwall Council to debate stadium (at last)

At full council next week, Cornwall councillors will finally be given the chance to debate the stadium.

A motion has been put forward by Fiona Ferguson, seconded by Councillor M Martin and supported by Councillors Fitter, Mann and Rushworth as follows:

“This Council supports the development of a Stadium for Cornwall as a private sector led project and recommends to Cabinet that if the Council receives a request for financial support, whether direct or indirect, including by way of guarantees or provision of infrastructure, that the principle of providing such support be debated by Full Council before any decision be made by Cabinet.”

What would this mean if passed? Well it tells the cabinet to stop trying to lead the project and leave it to the private sector partners to do so. It also seeks to get around the weasel words that have been used regrettably often by the council on funding to say that if any type of public funding is sought then it should be up to full council (and not the cabinet or individual officers) to decide whether or not it happens.

BUT - the motion also says that the Council is, in principle, supportive of a private sector led stadium project and does not completely close the door to the possibility of public funding.

I suspect that this motion will be broadly supported by most councillors. There will be some who believe there should never be any public funding - but I think they should support this. There will also be those who believe that the Council should continue to lead and pay for the stadium - who will vote against this motion.

What I hope is that this motion is actually debated next week and not kicked into the long grass of a scrutiny committee.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Local pay scales would hit Cornwall hard

The latest in a long line of leaks from Number 11 about the coming week's budget (whatever happened to purdah?) concerns a proposal for regionalised public sector pay.

The argument goes that the cost of living is different in different parts of the UK and that jobs in the private sector pay different rates - and therefore that the public sector should too.

I'll wait to see the details as and when it is proposed by the Chancellor, but I think that a system of local or regional pay will hit Cornwall hard.

First - how will it be assessed? It's all very well to point to a small range of indicators such as rent, but an assessment should be based on the true cost of living - public transport, house prices relative to wages, petrol prices, access to leisure facilities and so on.

Second - who says that the private sector pays less in Cornwall than in Kent (I'm ignoring London because it already has a 'London-weighting' boost for many wages)? The vast majority of larger private sector firms have a single rate for the job - wherever you are in the UK. Sure, there are some firms that don't, but these are not the majority. I fully accept that average pay rates in the private sector in Cornwall are lower, but that is due to the huge number of relatively poorly paid seasonal and tourism jobs and the fact that we (regrettably) have few hi-tech, highly skilled businesses based here.

Third - there will be the inevitable disparity between how we treat those at the top end of the pay scale and those lower down. I can recall that when Cornwall Council was recruiting one of their senior officers I lobbied for the rate of pay to be lowered (I think the proposal was for £140k). I was told that Cornwall needed to pay over the odds because of the difficulty of attracting the highest calibre of candidates.

There are some good arguments for Cornwall actually seeing higher pay rates if localised pay scales were introduced - but I don't think that is how Chancellor Osborne sees it.

Still, at least he has an ally in Cornwall council Leader Alec Robertson whose considered verdict on regional or local pay was:

"I tend to support anything that has the word local in it"


Friday, 16 March 2012

Friday Fun - the strange case of the mobile ballot box

A fun video with a serious message



Cornwall's parking service needs second bail-out

Cornwall Council's parking service will need a second bailout this year according to a report being presented to next week's cabinet meeting.

Back when the budget was agreed the Lib Dems warned that racking up car park charges would result in less income not more. At the time, cabinet member Graeme Hicks said that he was confident in the predictions. Then, in the autumn, he was persuaded by officers to cut the amount they could expect to make from car parking by a massive £2.5 million.

The latest papers reveal that Cllr Hicks will miss his revised target by another £600,000.

The first target resulted in delays to road safety schemes across Cornwall as Cllr Hicks scrambled to cover his losses. On Wednesday we will try to find out how the latest financial cock up will be covered.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

What happens when your recycling bags are full?

A few residents in Launceston have complained that their new recycling bags are nowhere near large enough for all that they want to put out. I'm asking questions of the council to find a solution.

As I've blogged before, there is a new waste contractor for the whole of Cornwall. They have changed various things including bringing in a new system of bags and plastic boxes for recycling in place of the old disposable plastic sacks.

But many households, particularly larger families, produce far more recyclable material than these bags hold. In the past the plastic sacks held about double the amount and, if you filled one, you could simply start another. The temptation with the new system is that, once you fill up your bag you will throw any additional recyclable materials into black bags.

So what is the option with the new regime? Can you have two (or three, or four) of the re-usable bags per house? I've asked the council and will post again when I get an answer.

UPDATE - The initial answer from the council is that householders should be able to request extra bags, but only after the new contractor starts work on April 1st. I'll post more details when I get them.

Waste collection dates changing in Launceston - UPDATED

Rubbish and recycling collection days for much of Launceston are changing in two weeks time.

As part of the new waste contract, the new service providers have been given the chance to review all of their rounds and change the collection days if they wished. In Launceston they have done so and some areas which were previously collected on a Tuesday will now be collected on a Wednesday - both for black bag waste and recycling.

In order to check what is happening for your property, you should check online by going to the Cornwall Council website here and entering your postcode in the box halfway down the lefthand side (it could be made a lot clearer!)

There will also be leaflets delivered to each house in the next week.

UPDATE - I've been asked whether the frequency of collections will change. I can confirm that in North Cornwall it won't. We will still get weekly black bag rubbish collections and fortnightly recycling collection.

Council failing over parking charges

  • Season tickets sales have slumped since price rises
  • Prices up again today despite promised freeze
  • Cheap rate for low paid workers delayed
  • Parking meters threatened for some town centres

Cornwall Council has sold just five annual season tickets in Launceston since prices more than doubled in May last year - and prices have risen yet again today.

Season tickets across Cornwall used to be sold pretty haphazardly - with only 13 being sold in the form Carrick at one point. But in North Cornwall in general (and Launceston in particular) the scheme has always been pretty well publicised and well used. That is probably largely due to the narrow streets and walled nature of our town which means that there are very few on street spaces close to the town centre. We also have lots of town centre flats with no parking spaces of their own.

So the drop in the number of season tickets sold is pretty worrying. It will mean a huge loss of income to Cornwall Council and more cars parked on our streets in residential areas (much to the annoyance of some residents).

In the four and a bit months before the season ticket price rose from £195 to £400, there were 195 annual passes sold across the former North Cornwall area (at that stage no records were taken of where the tickets were used). Just five have been renewed since the price rise.

There is a similar story for six month passes. Before the price rise, 143 were sold across North Cornwall in four and a bit months. Since the rise, just seven have been sold.

And yet, despite promises made to local members about the price being frozen this year, the annual charge has risen to £470 (a rise of 17.5%). I asked officers about this today and was told that it was because the day rate for long stay car parks has also risen (itself a cause for concern). The £400 price was already stupid and self-defeating, yet it seems like Cornwall Council is determined to empty the Cattle Market long-stay car park completely.

Those of us who complained about the damage that the high season ticket prices were doing to town centre shops and businesses were told that a cheap rate would be introduced for lower paid workers. Whilst the plan for assessing who would qualify for the cheap rate was pretty badly thought through, at least this was recognition that high season ticket prices could damage local shops and businesses. So why hasn't the scheme been introduced? Because the council is 'worried about the effects on revenue'.

At today's car parking panel meeting at County Hall, officers raised the prospect of introducing charges for on-street parking. Installing meters is said not to be about revenue raising but about helping to ensure a regular turnover of shoppers. I'm afraid that, when everything else to do with parking in Cornwall is revenue related, I don't entirely accept the promise about this being for altruistic reasons - particularly when the same effect can be gained by introducing limited waiting periods where there are none and enforcing those that do exist.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Why did Cornwall Council ignore Kellogg's 'free swim' offer

There was a story in the Cornish Guardian last week about Cornwall Council's failure to take part in a Kellogg's free swims for kids offer.

The scheme was a national one which involved collecting tokens from cereal boxes in return for free swimming sessions. Cornwall Council said that it didn't sign up to take part because it was in the middle of a big reorganisation of a leisure services including the transfer of council leisure centres to the new leisure trust.

Whilst I support the new trust, it does seem unfortunate that it has taken so long to get this right. The new trust was meant to take control in April last year, but only did so on December 1st.

It's also a shame that the process of the transfer seems to have been so all consuming that a chance to take part in a nationally promoted scheme with a big name sponsor was missed.

I was a member of the council's leisure strategy review group which last year made a series of recommendations about how Cornwall Council could promote active lifestyles and more exercise. We didn't specifically consider the Kellogg's scheme, but we did recommend that consideration be given to a scheme to bring young people from poorer backgrounds into organised leisure activities.

In this case, it seems that the re-structuring and reorganisation mantra of the Council has actually cost the leisure service customers.

What would you do with an extra £60 per month?

On April 1st, the changes to the income tax system will mean that more than 25 million working people in the UK will see more money in their pay packet.

The Lib Dems want to go further. We believe that the tax threshold should be at least £10,000 - meaning that anyone who earns less than that will pay no income tax at all. This would put an extra £60 per month in the pocket of most workers.

What would you do with an extra £60 per month?

Whilst the coalition is steadily moving towards the £10,000 level, it should be possible to go further. Why should anyone who works normal full-time hours on minimum wage pay any income tax at all? So the Lib Dems are calling for more tax cuts for millions of working people to be put before tax cuts for millionaires.

Cornwall Council employs twitter spies to monitor what is being said about the Leader - UPDATED

Cornwall Council has confirmed to me that they are using taxpayers' money to 'spy' on opposition councillors and what they are saying online about Leader Alec Robertson. At least one of the officers who has been given this task works in the Cabinet Office directly for the Leader.

At a cabinet meeting a couple of months ago, Cllr Robertson read out a number of twitter posts critical of his decision to be absent from a cabinet discussion on child safeguarding in favour of lobbying a local government magazine which had shortlisted Cornwall Council for an award. He then attempted to ban the use of twitter in meetings.

The Council issued a statement saying that the tweets were "brought to the attention of the leader" so I asked who had done so. Finally - two months later and at 6pm on a Friday evening - the Council has admitted that a relatively junior officer in the Cabinet Office was tasked with following what was being said about the Leader.

Why is this important? Well, it seems to speak to the increasing level of paranoia that has invaded the top floor bunker at County Hall. That they should be using officers who have other jobs to do simply to find out what is being said about the Leader seems like a waste of taxpayers' money. This wasn't someone from the communications team who might be expected to keep an eye on what is said about the council as a whole, but someone whose usual job is as the cabinet's office manager - organising their diaries and managing their correspondence.

At the same time, the Council is conducting a survey of members about whether they want a debate to discuss a possible ban on twitter and other social media during meetings. It seems that the desire to introduce censorship is still very real.

I'm astonished, but frankly not surprised, that Alec Robertson should be diverting public money to spy on what opposition councillors are saying about him.

Everything on twitter is in the public domain - if Alec wants to know what is being said about him, he just needs to log on and read for himself. What he shouldn't be doing is using council staff and seeking to censor what his political opponents are saying.

I am concerned that we appear to have a Leader who has taken his eye off the ball. Instead of concentrating on providing the best services for Cornwall, he is too busy trying to win obscure local government magazine awards and ban dissent. It's as if he wants to turn Cornwall into North Korea.

UPDATE - Newspaper coverage here and here.

UPDATE 2 - Cornwall Council has responded to say:
"It is nonsensical to say Council is using (Twitter) to spy on anyone."
Ok - So why did Head of Policy and Communications Carole Theobald say just that in her email to me?

and
"concerns as to content of some posts made on Twitter by councillors"
So they admit to wanting to censor what we say?

UPDATE 3 - The Independent has published the story including more of what Cornwall Council said in its statement. I think we can label this particular spin as mendacious twaddle. Claims that Cornwall Council doesn't want to ban twitter in its meetings and isn't seeking to censor councillors ignores the fact that this is exactly what the Leader did two months ago and they want to hold a debate to reinstate a ban in two weeks time. And as for the claim that no officer time or taxpayers' money is spent on it - they ignore the fact that it was officers who sought to uphold the Leader's ban.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 10

The final part of my round up of Liberal Democrat achievements in government looks at local services and, in particular, post offices.

Post office branches are at the heart of many local communities. Across the UK, the lst Labour government closed more than 7000. And before that the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher and John Major closed more than 5000.

Thanks to Lib Dem minister Ed Davey, every single post office branch has been safeguarded for the next 10 years at least.

Tory website accuses Lance of dithering

The Conservative Home website has laid into Lance Kennedy (and others) decrying the lack of action in their campaign to become police commissioners.

"Cllr Simon Spencer, the Deputy Leader of Derbyshire County Council, is seeking nomination. But where is his website? Ditto Cllr Lance Kennedy in Devon and Cornwall. Ditto Cllr George Beckett for Hampshire. Ditto Cllr Stephen Bett for Norfolk. Ditto, for that matter, Colonel Tim Collins in Kent. None off them seem to have taken this most basic step in their campaigns.

They need to stop dithering."


What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 9

Across the UK housing waiting lists have been growing. Here in Cornwall, despite the claims by the council to have plans to have built new houses, the housing waiting list grew by 2000 names in just two months and now stands at more than 23,000 families.

Since the general election, the Government has prioritised new affordable homes to rent and to buy. With the Liberal Democrats in government we have seen more than 150,000 affordable homes built across the UK.

At the same time as Cornwall Council's commitment to affordable housing seems to be slipping, the government is turning up the heat.

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 8

A Liberal Democrat passion has always been for the freedom of the individual and for civil liberties.


The last Labour government restricted our freedoms more than any government in history, I would argue. The coalition has taken massive steps to right those wrongs including abandoning the illiberal and expensive moves to introduce ID cards.


Saturday, 10 March 2012

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 7

The last years of the Labour government were plagued by the financial crisis. There will always be arguments about how much control the government really had, but it became clear that something had to be done to stop a repeat ever happening.

And so with Vince Cable as the Business Secretary, the Lib Dems in government have taken action to separate the ordinary high street banking that you and I rely on from the risky investment banking which ultimately brought our economy to its knees.

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 6

I remember the outcry when Labour increased the basic state pension by just 75p. This achievement by Liberal Democrats in government was the very opposite of that attitude.


By restoring the link between earnings and pensions, the coalition government secured the biggest ever rise in the level of the state pension. And it means that the average pensioner will receive £15,000 more in their lifetime than they would have done before.

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 5

The fifth in my series on Liberal Democrat achievements in government is all about the environment - and jobs too.


The Green Deal is a scheme to help people invest in their homes by creating a loan scheme to fund environmental improvements like insulation, more efficient heating systems and solar panels.

And by making the scheme small scale and local, it will help to create and safeguard local jobs too.

Friday, 9 March 2012

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 4

Ask people what matters most in Cornwall at the moment and it is likely that jobs will be at the top of the list. Indeed, the Lib Dems won the recent by-election in Bodmin on the basis of concerns over youth unemployment.

That is why a commitment to apprenticeships matters. Since the Lib Dems joined the government the number of apprenticeships has grown dramatically.

Locally, Lib Dems believe that jobs and skills are vital too. At the lest council meeting I asked about the number of apprenticeships created by the council. The answer - 12. Cornwall Council is saying the right things when it comes to apprenticeships, but the truth is that the authority is not living up to those words. We're demanding much better action to ensure that young people in Cornwall can look forward to a positive future without feeling they have to move away to achieve.

New waste and recycling site opens on Pennygillam

This afternoon saw the formal opening of the new Household Waste Recycling Centre on the Pennygillam Estate. Together with other local councillors I was the guest of Sita at the formal opening at which Cabinet Member Julian German attempted* to cut the ribbon.

The new site is a great facility. It is in two parts - one is a massive shed which enables the transfer of household rubbish from bin lorries into much larger trucks which take it off to landfill (at the moment). Transferring it in this way means the bin lorries can spend more time on collections and there are less vehicles on our roads.

The other part of the site is the recycling facility which can cope with a huge range of materials from wood and cardboard to green waste, asbestos sheets and old electrical equipment. They are also collecting items which can be re-used.

Compared to the old site, this one is much more spacious and easy to use. It won't require climbing up steps and there won't be cars backing up into the main road on busy days.

(*Julian was offered a choice of brand new cutters or old fashioned shears. He chose the shears and they failed to cut the ribbon)

Ridgegrove vandalism to be repaired 'early next week'

The damage to the gates on the new Ridgegrove play area will be fixed early next week I have been assured. But it looks like the promised litter bin might take a while longer.

Vandals recently took one of the main gates on the play area off its hinges. The contractors have had to order new parts and these will be arriving early next week to enable to gate to be repaired.

There is also a lot of litter in the play area - I suspect because the litter bin promised when the play area was revamped last summer has never materialised. I'm chasing this, but have been told that it has to be cleared with the new waste contractors who won't start their work until April 2nd. I don't think that local people should have to wait for something promised nine months ago and have written to the Cabinet Member for an early answer.

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 3

Next up in the list of Lib Dem achievements is a policy centred on our demand for more investment in education.


As a party, we campaigned over two elections saying that we felt education was so important that we would be prepared to increase taxes in order to pay for improvements.

Time may have moved on, but our commitment to education hasn't.

In government we have introduced the pupil premium which has given millions of pounds of new money to schools for the benefit of less well off pupils.

Cornish colleges offer free travel for less well off 16-18 students

Both the major colleges in Cornwall have announced that they will be offering free transport to 16-18 students from low and middle income families from September. This is partly as a result of the new Cornwall EMA. Congratulations to both Cornwall College and Truro & Penwith College for taking this action.

The Cornwall EMA (otherwise known as the Cornish Bursary scheme) is there to help less well off students who don't fall into the narrow remit of the government scheme. The aim is to ensure they can stay in education. The free travel for Cornwall College applies to students from families earning less than £31,000 per year and who live more than 3 miles from the college campus where they study. My understanding is that the T&P scheme is similar.

This idea will be a huge benefit to those students from East Cornwall who face very expensive (and long) bus rides to be able to study at a Cornish FE college.

Although this announcement looks like a good use of the money, there are some caveats. In order to genuinely help students stay in education, the money has to reflect the needs of the individual. It may be that, in some cases, free travel is not the top priority for a student. I'm keen to see what the college will offer in those circumstances. I also want to know what sort of support will be given to students who live near to the college but still need help.

The Cornwall EMA is also being rolled out through sixth forms. We await news of what they will be doing to help students.


What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 2


The second Liberal Democrat achievement is closely linked to the first. We've stopped the Conservative plans to give a tax cut to the richest. The room for manoeuvre on tax cuts has been very limited and the Liberal Democrats have insisted that any benefit be targeted at those on the lowest incomes.

So we've stopped the Tory plans to give tax cuts to dead millionaires and we've said that we will only countenance the abolition of the 50p top tax rate if it is replaced with a mansion tax or similar.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

What have the Lib Dems achieved in government - part 1

My friend Mark Pack has produced a great info-graphic detailing the success of the Liberal Democrats in getting 75% of their manifesto into the coalition agreement.

As Party President Tim Farron says - we're proud of the 75% and we're sorry not to gave got the remaining quarter in there. But people who voted Lib Dem at the last election can see that the principles that they voted for are being enacted.

I agree with Tim. I'm sorry that some of the policies being put forward by the government are not what we would have wanted. But I am proud to be a Lib Dem because of the positive things we have done. So over the next few days I'll be posting stories about these achievements.


This, for me, is the biggest and best single achievement of the Lib Dems in power. Despite the huge financial mess left to use by the previous government, Liberal Democrats have prioritised easing the tax burden on poorer people.

Cornwall Council - giving away the farm

Cornwall Council's strategic planning committee today voted to approve the Truro 'Eastern District Centre' application for a Waitrose Supermarket, Cornwall Food Centre, Eastern Park and Ride, Waste Recycling Centre and housing.

I don't sit of this committee and didn't attend the meeting and so will not disagree with the overall 11-8 vote in favour of the application.

But I am particularly disappointed with one aspect of the outcome. This was a green field application to be built on land outside the Truro development boundary. As such, the policy agreed by the Cabinet is that every single one of the houses should be an affordable home - 100%. What percentage has been agreed - 35% We are, quite literally, giving away the farm.

Cornwall Council faces a housing waiting list of 23,000 families. We need to take urgent action to get this number down. But we do ourselves no favours if we allow developers who can afford more to get away with giving only around a third of the homes they are building to local families on the housing waiting list. It means we will have to build more and more houses for incomers to get the affordable homes we need.

I have always argued that the proposals of the core strategy for new homes in Cornwall of 48,000 or more is wrong. I've said that we can get this number down by enforcing the higher levels of affordable housing that the Cabinet agreed two years ago. Yet again, it would seem that the council has let developers get away with murder.

My post on the new LGA blog site

I've been invited by the Local Government Association to contribute to their new councillor blog platform. My first effort - on the subject of councils investing in tobacco companies - is available here.

Do also read Labour Cllr Graham Chapman on welfare reform and Conservative Cllr Mimi Harker on helping families facing redundancy.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Stadium - Inox will not be putting up any money

A few days ago, I posed some questions to the boss of Inox, the group behind the Stadium for Cornwall development proposals. In particular, I asked where the money would be coming from if not from Inox and I also asked that members of council and of the public should be able to judge for themselves by being able to read all the communications involved in the project to date.

I've now had the following reply from Rob Saltmarsh:

Dear Councillor Folkes,

Thank you for your email and apologies for the delay in coming back to you.

As stated in my letter, Inox remain fully committed to helping deliver the stadium project. I do believe that Inox could potentially secure third party private investment through the development vehicle, Cornwall Community Stadium Ltd (CCS Ltd) and this is our preferred funding option, albeit it will depend on the level of revenue and rental income that the stadium can generate.

The parties have discussed a range of options with the consultants for the stadium project and each has provided their thoughts on the matter, as to how the stadium may be funded. The consultants have in turn prepared a range of options and modelling scenarios based on this feedback (and indeed have suggested their own options). None of these options have been formally agreed in any shape or form.

Inox’s position remains that we do not intend to invest directly into the stadium. From the way the story has been reported I think perhaps the distinction between Inox facilitating third party funding and CCS Ltd delivering the stadium, may have been lost in the Part 2 Scrutiny paper (which, for your information, I have not seen).

Without sounding evasive, I feel it is reasonable to request a degree of confidentiality at this stage of the process, whilst the financial modelling and discussions remain ongoing with the partners of CCS Ltd and other third parties. I hope this will not be construed as sinister dealings behind closed doors, but is simply part of the preparation work that goes into any development project, before a deliverable option is found.

Many thanks for your interest and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have further queries.

Regards,

Rob Saltmarsh

So it appears certain that Inox will not be investing in the stadium themselves, but they will be seeking third party investors.

Garden Waste collections - households face quadruple bills this year

I blogged yesterday about the changes to the rubbish and recycling collection service that will be made at the beginning of next month. I did gloss over the impact of the changes to the garden waste service, but these deserve more study.

Until now, local residents have been able to have grass cuttings and other garden waste collected in brown paper bags on a fortnightly basis. In turn, these bags have cost 75p each (up from 25p each last year).

Under the new scheme, residents will need to buy a wheelie bin costing either £15 or £18 depending on the size. Residents with limited space can buy a re-usable sack costing £3.

In addition, residents will need to take out a subscription for the fortnightly service costing £7.50, £8 or £12 for a six month subscription or £15, £16 or £23.50 for a full annual permit. The different prices depend on whether the sack, small wheelie bin or large wheelie bin is being used.

There will also be a £3.50 subscription for a very limited number of collections of the sack only.

My concern about this scheme is this. For someone who produces a regular amount of garden waste, it make sense and the costs will be not much different from the current regime. But most of the residents I have talked to who use the system don't produce the same amount of garden waste each time. They might produce a couple of the brown bags at the start of the season, one or two every so often during the summer and then two or three at the end of the growing season. The ad hoc nature of the old system suited them perfectly but the new system seems to be based on a regular amount of waste.

I am also told that the small sacks (and the lowest number of collections) will be limited to very small households only. Everyone else will have to have one of the wheelie bins. And so a household that last year spent £6 on eight brown bags will find themselves having to pay a minimum of £23 this year - almost four times the amount.

The alternative, we are told, is for households to compost their garden waste or to take it themselves to the Household Waste Recycling Centre. In both cases, this is a good option for some residents but impossible for others.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Cornwall Conversations comes to Launceston

This evening, Cornwall Council's cabinet came to Launceston as part of the Cornwall Conversations roadshow. The event was aimed at town and parish councils and gave them the chance to ask questions on issues that mattered to them.

I'm not sure what the turnout in other areas has been, but I have to say that it wasn't the best here. And that gets to the root of the flaw with this scheme. It's good, of course, that the Cabinet has come to Launceston. But it was perhaps a mistake to limit the invites to just town and parish councillors. After all, the cabinet isn't able to be here all the time. In fact, this is the first time that we have had more than two cabinet members in Launceston since the authority was formed almost three years ago. So if this isn't to be a regular occurrence, surely it makes sense to open it up to as many people as possible. Town and parish councillors are at the forefront of localism, but they aren't the only partners for Cornwall Council and others deserve their chance.

The event itself was useful in that everyone who wanted to ask a question was able to do so. These were the key points that I picked out:

- The Council is looking to relocate a range of services from the old magistrates court building to the tax office (Madford House) next to the library.
- The Leader said that he was in favour of local pay rates. "If it has the word local in it then I'm generally in favour" he said.
- Although Cornwall has a number of 'very small schools', cabinet member Neil Burden said that, at the moment, there are no plans to close any.
- The Leader denied once again that there are any agreed plans to put council funding into the stadium or any supporting infrastructure. (My own take on this is that although what he says is true, council officers have clearly worked up schemes which might be agreed).
- Launceston town councillor Paul O'Brien asked why Cornwall Council wouldn't agree to allow a new CCTV camera in the town to be mounted on a lamppost and plugged into the council's electricity supply. He even offered to pay. Lance Kennedy promised to look into it.

And finally... a parish clerk asked if emails from the localism team could be clearly marked as being either for action, for information or merely spam. I'll buy a pint for the first officer who takes the courageous decision to label an email that they send out as spam.

Perfect music for St Piran's Day

Launceston's own Crowns have released their new single today and the video features a criminal waste of Stoggs.



Cornwall Council's Talking Rubbish

Nope, this isn't my usual dig at the council. It's their own description of the changes that are happening to the waste and recycling service as part of the new collection contract which comes into force on April 1st.

The old system that used to apply in Launceston of brown paper bags for garden waste and disposable plastic sacks for other recyclables is being scrapped. Instead, a new system of re-usable boxes and bags is being introduced.

Each house will receive:

- An ORANGE bag for cardboard
- A RED bag for plastic bottles, foil, tins and drink cans and jar lids
- A BLUE bag for paper including newspaper and telephone directories
- A BLACK Box for glass jars and bottles and for textiles (which should be clean and dry and in a bag on top of the glass)

Garden Waste
The new garden waste service requires you to buy a wheelie bin and to pay a subscription for the collection service. Full details will be in the leaflet delivered to your door. In order to register, you can either visit the One Stop Shop or call 0300 1234 141.

Collection days and times
Every household in Cornwall will be getting a leaflet with the new collection days and times before the new regime starts on April 1st. Not everyone will see their collection days and times change, but many will do, so please look out for this leaflet.

Unused plastic bags
The new collection regime starts on April 1st. If at that time you still have some of the old clear or blue disposable recycling bags left, you will be allowed to use them for normal 'black bag' waste. (This wasn't allowed previously).

You can find out more about the changes on the Council website.

Please note - some of the changes outlined above are applicable only to Launceston. If you live in a different part of Cornwall, please check for local details.

Boris faces a Santorum of a problem

Boris Johnson has announced nine key campaign slogans in his bid to retain the mayoralty of London. But in doing so, he has saddled himself with a Santorum of a problem which could come back to bite him if he really does have ambitions to become Prime Minister at some point down the line.

Fortunately for Boris, it's not the Google thing, but the accusation faced by US Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum that he spent all his time as Senator for Pennsylvania trying to get special deals for that state - earmarks in polite company or pork in the pejorative.

If you are a politician elected to represent a particular area then it helps your chances of re-election if you can point out that you have got a special deal for that area. In Boris' case, he has launched a campaign poster that says he will be 'securing a better deal for London from No 10.' That's all very well if you are trying to appeal to London voters. It shows up that Boris' chum Dave is the Prime Minister and he can get special treatment for the capital if he asks nicely. Ken Livingstone, on the other hand, hasn't got a hope of getting anything out of a Tory PM.

But how does that play with the rest of the country. If London is getting a better deal, surely that implies that the rest of the UK is getting a worse one? If you're not facing election in the rest of the UK then you could care less. But if Boris wants to be PM, how's he going to explain himself to the people of the UK as a whole.

Rick Santorum has faced just these problems. He may be popular in Pennsylvania for what he did to get better treatment for that state (that fact that he isn't is a whole different story) but he is facing a barrage of negative ads everywhere else.



Saturday, 3 March 2012

Lanson - Bude bus service is NOT being cancelled

I've been contacted by some very worried local residents who are concerned at the statement being made by Western Greyhound on their website about the 576 bus service between Launceston and Bude.

The statement implies that the service could be ending. However I can reassure residents that the service will be continuing, but with a different operator.

The full story (thanks to the council's top officer on the subject) is this:

The Western Greyhound (WG) website is misleading for the 576 service, and this goes for a number of other services that WG have recently lost at tender. WG’s service will terminate on 31 March 2012 but another provider will continue from 1 April 2012. Services will continue from Bude to Launceston and indeed the service through to Plymouth will be enhanced.

The Launceston - Callington - Plymouth route has seen the two bus companies, Western Greyhound Ltd and First Devon & Cornwall Ltd vying for its patronage for some time.

The current situation (i.e. pre April 2012)

All journeys on the First Devon and Cornwall service 76 and the Western Greyhound service 576 between Callington and Plymouth are operated commercially. The 576 north of Callington plus the journeys to/from Cornwall College Saltash from Bude are operated under contract to Cornwall Council. Some additional journeys over and above the basic two hourly services between Bude and Callington are Western Greyhound commercial additions.

It is the contracted journeys that were offered for tender in the recent round of tendering.

Post 1 April 2012

First D&C were awarded the contract to operate supported services, as part of a significant package of work across the county, albeit with varied journey times to fit their own commercial operation between Callington and Plymouth.

Western Greyhound then advised that they would be registering a commercial daytime service between Launceston and Plymouth, with one journey extended to Bude. This prompted a review of the contract award as daytime journeys between Launceston and Callington could no longer be considered for support (Local Authorities cannot tender or operate supported journeys in competition with a commercial service) and the Council notified First of this commercial action by Western Greyhound.

First D&C were asked to revise their tender package based on the tendered journeys between Bude and Launceston, evening and Sunday journeys (i.e. with Callington to Launceston supported journeys removed).

One week later, Western Greyhound registered a commercial Sunday service between Launceston and Plymouth, to start on 8th April, the first date that the Traffic Commissioner would allow. This prompted a further return to First to ask them to review their tendered price with the Sunday supported journeys removed from consideration.

The decision of both companies to submit commercial registrations has been of benefit to the Council and has resulted in a saving of over £50,000 per annum to the Council over and above that already saved in the tender round. The only journeys now supported by the Council on this service are those First D&C journeys between Bude and Launceston and evening journeys throughout the route after the 1905 Plymouth to Launceston and all subsequent journeys until end of service at 2305 from Plymouth.

Supported services becoming commercial does not always save us money because it can be the case that the journeys that were previously supported were part of a larger tendered package and their removal can in fact increase subsidy costs as the buses serving them are then unable to provide a complete route. I hope this complete information helps to show how iterative planning the bus network can be.

I hope this provides reassurance. If any reader has any queries about this or any other bus services, please get in touch. Thanks to the Council threatening to cut bus services in the past few months, there will remain concerns about the future of services, but I am confident in their assurances that ALL supported services are safe for the next two years. I will remain vigilant, however.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Jake Lyne becomes youngest Lib Dem councillor in Cornwall

Jake Lyne has just been declared the winner of the Bodmin Town Council by election.

The full result is

Jake Lyne - Lib Dem - 442
Independent - 213
Menyon Kernow - 194
Conservative - 141

The turnout was 18.36% and it was a Lib Dem gain from Independent.

That's a great result for Jake who, at 19 becomes the youngest member of the town council by some 20 years and the youngest elected Lib Dem in Cornwall (St Agnes Labour Parish Councillor Joe Vinson is 18).

As well as being a fantastic result for the Lib Dems, it was a terrible night for the Tories. Local Tory bigwig Lance Kennedy and his Tories came a pretty poor fourth (and last). It's not exactly going to inspire confidence in his bid to become the Tory candidate for Police Commissioner.

It's also a kick in the teeth for whoever decided to deliver a particularly nasty (and illegal) anonymous attack leaflet last night. I'm delighted that the voters of Bodmin wouldn't give any credibility to such smears and we will let the Police deal with it.