Friday, 29 June 2012

Newport Road crossing

This afternoon I had a meeting with highways officers to discuss the ongoing quest for a safe way for pedestrians to cross the main road at Newport Square or St Thomas Road. As regular readers will know, money for a crossing was in last year's budget but the project was delayed by a lack of design resources.

The engineers have modelled three options for how a crossing might work. The first two look at the obvious option of adding a pedestrian phase to the traffic lights. Whilst this would be feasible, the knock on effect on the length of time that cars would end up waiting at the junction at peak times is very worrying.

The other option would be an informal refuge type crossing a bit further up the hill towards town. The trouble with this is that it would do little to serve the proposed TRAC trail between Polson and Egloskerry which it is suggested would cross the main road at the Newport Industrial Estate junction.

So the officers are going away to think some more. I'm grateful to them for the work they have done so far and am confident that we will come up with some sort of scheme in the near future.

In the meantime, they are also looking at introducing a length of pavement on the industrial estate side of the road between the junction and Station Road. They are also looking at better understanding the traffic flows to see if the current lights could be re-timed to reduce waiting times.

As with many local problems, there isn't a simple solution, but I am confident that this one is now being addressed.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Launceston Foodbank update 2 - debt advice centre?

This evening I attended a meeting organised by Churches Together in Launceston to discuss the possibility of setting up a new debt advice centre for Launceston.

The meeting was called by Keith Roberts, who initiated the work that led to the founding of the Launceston Foodbank. We heard about the debt problems being faced by Foodbank clients and others and from Ian, from Honiton Debt Advice Centre, about the process of setting up such a facility.

I'm backing such a move because I understand that many people are facing huge financial worries at the moment and some expert advice on how to manage their money, as well as claim all that they are entitled to, would be very welcome. Although the CAB do an excellent job in this area, it can sometimes be as much as a month to get an appointment and so any new facility would be to add to their work.

So watch out for further announcements from Keith and others about a new service. In the meantime, if you need advice on debt which is free and confidential, please contact me and I will try to find expert help.

Launceston Foodbank update 1 - all hands to the pump

A quick plea to my regular readers on behalf of Launceston Foodbank. They were established back in December and, together with my fellow Cornwall councillors, I gave them a grant from my community chest to help them start up.

The Foodbank is currently making an appeal for supplies. It seems that demand is growing and the summer is a time when people are less able to give because they are often away on holiday.

It doesn't require a lot, but please buy an item or two from the Foodbank shopping list of tinned and dried goods when you do your weekly shop.

Overgrown Zig Zag

This morning I went out with a local resident to see the state of the Zig Zag path between Newport and the town centre.

The pathway is horrendously overgrown with weeds and stinging nettles and very difficult to get through. I've reported it to Cornwall Council and asked them to take action as soon as possible. I've also reported the graffiti on the unpainted wall halfway up the path.


Government commits to next stage of second home voting ban

Congratulations to North Cornwall Lib Dem MP Dan Rogerson who has secured a commitment from the government to the next stage of the ban on second home voting.

The Electoral Review Panel, which I chair, has persuaded Cornwall Council to lead the way in clamping down on people using second homes to register to vote - potentially influencing elections in areas where they have little real connection.

But this action relies on the register of those claiming a council tax discount for their second home. With the creation of the right for council's to charge full council tax on second homes, there were potentially challenges ahead.

So Dan asked Cabinet Officer minister Mark Harper to introduce a section on the voter registration form asking about other properties that the elector owns or occupies and the minister agreed to move forward with this as part of the fraud-busting change to individual voter registration.

This is good news for clean and fair elections, but it is also good news for councils wanting to better plan their services. Cornwall Council has already decided to seek to maintain a second homes register so that it can better understand the demographics and demands on its services. The change to the electoral registration form will, potentially, make this a lot easier and more accurate.

Cameron seeks to condemn young people to homelessness and sofa-surfing

Last week I posted about the work being done by foyer projects across Cornwall to help homeless young people. These housing schemes don't just put a roof over the heads of people who would otherwise be on the streets or sofa-surfing, they also help them find training or jobs and prepare them to live independently.

According to the reports over the weekend, Prime Minister David Cameron is now saying that he wants a future Conservative government to abolish housing benefit for under 25s.

The question is therefore... what will happen to young people like those we met last week? 

These are not young people for whom staying at home with their parents is an option. In the main they have troubled pasts and have been kicked out of home or left because of family breakdown. As I posted last week, the delays in processing housing benefits and the single room rate restriction can make it very difficult for young people to get into housing. Losing all access to housing benefit would make it next to impossible.

And what about those young people who get on their bikes and leave home to find work but lose their job or are in work that doesn't pay enough to cover all their out-goings? If they lose their housing benefits then they will be punished for trying to make it on their own.

Cameron has been very clear that these are ideas for a future Tory government because he knows that there is no way that the Liberal Democrats in coalition would agree to such measures. It's proof of how much different a Tory only administration would be.

CORRECTION - Lance hasn't made it

My apologies for the error in a previous post. It now appears that Cornwall Councillor Lance Kennedy is not in the final three for the Tory nomination to be Police and Crime Commissioner candidate.

My commiserations to Lance.


Sunday, 24 June 2012

#PastyTax wins an award

The pasty tax campaign has won an award in the Politics Home awards held last Tuesday but screened last night. Well, sort of...

Some of the awards are given for the use of social media and one is for the use of hashtags on twitter, Hashtags (the use of # before a word or phrase) allow people who have no other connection to link with each other. So the use of #pastytax in posts on the site allows people who all want to comment on the same thing to see what others are saying.

The Politics Home people gave the award for Hashtag of the Year to #pastytax - something I came up with and the campaign started using on the evening of the Chancellor's budget. In a case of great minds thinking alike, Alison Charlton had also come up with the same hashtag a short while before me and so scooped the prize.

Congratulations to Alison, but also great to have recognition for the impact of our twitter campaign.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Lance's big moment (and he'll be judged by AV)

The news is trickling through that Bodmin councillor Lance Kennedy has made it through onto the shortlist to be the Conservative candidate for police commissioner in Devon and Cornwall. It's quite a triumph for Lance who has been set against by the party machine locally who seemed to be desperate to find anyone but him to be the candidate.

Lance (and the other shortlisted candidates) will now have to face the selectorate in three hustings events next week. But, contradicting their earlier statements on the issue, the Tory Party have decided that the hustings will be open only to Tory Party members and electors. It seems that people who usually back other parties (or no party at all) will be excluded and the appeal of the shortlisted candidates to reach across the political spectrum for votes will therefore not be tested.

The other interesting factor in the Tory selection is that it will be conducted using the Alternative Vote. Remember that a year ago the Conservatives were campaigning against this very system being used for parliamentary elections. So why are they using it for their own elections? Is First Past the Post not good enough for them?



Excellent work of foyer projects stymied by council inefficiencies - UPDATED

Part of the unheralded work of councillors is to see how the services we run affect the lives of ordinary people - particularly the most vulnerable people in our society. Yesterday members of the Communities scrutiny committee visited the Bodmin Foyer project to talk to staff and residents there.

Like other foyers across Cornwall (including the one in Launceston), the Bodmin project takes young people aged 16-25 who are homeless and gives them a roof over their head. They then work with the residents to help them get training or a job and to learn to live independently.

We heard from Mark*, one of the residents, who had been through years of sofa surfing and being in and out of work. He has been helped hugely by the foyer to the extent that he is now in training, is learning to balance his household budgets and has realistic aims and ambitions for his future.

But not everything is running smoothly for the Foyer. They currently have a waiting list of 35 people and at least six of their residents are ready to move out. They included Hazel* who has been living in the Foyer system for almost a year and is keen and able to live independently. The trouble is that it is incredibly difficult for them to find the next place to live. Private landlords are reluctant to take them on given the limit of £70 per week they can claim in housing benefit. And Cornwall Council is so slow in processing benefit applications that many landlords are not prepared to wait the three months it often takes to get any rent.

In addition, the cuts last year in supporting people budgets means that the peripatetic youth workers who used to be available to provide occasional help to young people who had been through the system have gone. In the past, landlords had someone to turn to if young people were facing difficulties. Now they haven't and landlords are often not willing to take the risk.

Whilst Cornwall Council cannot change the single room restriction in housing benefit levels, we need to cut the huge delay in processing housing benefit claims and to consider how we can support young people and landlords so that it becomes easier to move on from the foyer projects.

UPDATE -

It's fair to say that Cornwall Council are making significant improvements in some areas of housing. Cabinet member Mark Kaczmarek has asked me to mention the Stepping Stones project which was launched earlier this week to encourage more private landlords to work with Cornwall Housing to provide good quality homes to some of the families on the Cornwall Homechoice register. I'm happy to help publicise this initiative.

With more than 24,000 applicants on Homechoice and others seeking advice through the housing options service, housing need in Cornwall is high. The Stepping Stones to Homes scheme will work with private landlords with the aim of increasing access to private rented accommodation by giving landlords the confidence that they will receive support from a dedicated housing officer should they encounter issues with a tenant referred by Cornwall Housing.

Mark Kaczmarek, Cornwall Council cabinet member for housing and planning says: “Through Stepping Stones to Homes, Cornwall Housing will offer both private landlords and tenants the assurances and help they need to be able to enjoy a good and long lasting relationship.  We want to get away from the ‘revolving door’ which sees tenants who, for whatever reason, take on a tenancy only for the relationship with the landlord to break down and for the person to be back in the system and in need of emergency advice or accommodation.

We still have too many households in bed and breakfast and other emergency accommodation. It is in the best interests of all concerned to find a better way to help those most in housing need to find a stable and long term home. Housing need in Cornwall is great with over 24,000 applicants on the Homechoice register. We are not going to be able to offer homes to all of those people through social housing. We need private landlords to come forward and offer good quality homes and the Council will do all it can to help them and their tenants.” 

Stepping Stones to Homes provides a Cornwall Housing managed link between prospective tenants, referred by Cornwall Housing, and private landlords. The properties of landlords who sign up to the Stepping Stones to Homes scheme will be inspected by Cornwall Housing’s Private Sector Housing teams to make sure they meet agreed standards. A Landlord Code and a Tenant Code will be set up to ensure that each is aware of their respective responsibilities. 

Stepping Stones to Homes offer:

       One contact point at Cornwall Housing for both landlord and tenant

       A hot line to a trouble-shooter at Cornwall Housing for landlords, to quickly deal with any issues

       A guaranteed deposit Bond for landlords to the value of two months rent

       Fast payment of claims against the deposit – usually within 7 working days

       Rent in advance payment

       Fast tracked Housing Benefit claims

       Housing Benefit will be paid direct to the landlord for the first 6 month of the tenancy

       Landlord code to set out the expectations that Cornwall Housing, tenants and other landlords have of anyone signing up to the scheme. 

       Tenant code so that tenants understand their responsibilities, including the need to take care of the property

       Accreditation scheme which make sure that all properties are inspected and meet an agreed set of standards

       Guaranteed payment of up to 2 weeks rent to give time for an alternative and suitable tenant to be found if a property on the scheme becomes vacant

       A full inventory of the property

       Liaison between tenant, landlord and Cornwall Housing if a tenant decides to leave a property and the opportunity to re-let via the Stepping Stones to Homes scheme
*The names of the residents have been changed

New bus services for Launceston

New bus services for Launceston could be on the cards after a meeting I had with council officers yesterday. The current paucity of services means that many local residents end up having to use their cars for short journeys in and around the town.

Cornwall Council adopted a transport plan last year which promises a wider variety of community and local bus services. The catch is that this is a 20 year plan and there is no indication when these services might be created within that timescale.

The current town bus service is a good one, but is limited in the parts of the town it can reach whilst still maintaining an hourly service. Developments such as Kensey Valley Meadow and Oak Moor View are not served and areas like Hay Common will also be missed when the houses are built there.

I have therefore asked officers to look at the feasibility of introducing a second town bus in Launceston to operate during the daytime. It might be possible to combine this with some of the school services in order to provide the best value for money.

Such a new service is still some way off if it happens. We would probably need to wait for the next re-tendering of supported bus services in two years time. But I am hopeful that we can build on the current levels of service such that no one will feel the need to use their car to make short journeys in the future.

I have also asked officers to contact Western Greyhound to ask if some or all of the services between Launceston and Exeter could travel via to old A30 with stops at Kensey Hill and Lifton. At present the service leaves Launceston and uses the A30 direct to Okehampton. More stops in town could enable more local residents to use it.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Another 35% grant cut for Cornwall?

At a Cornwall Council event yesterday to discuss planning issues, the Chief Exec made a splash by saying that he thought the authority could be facing a cut in its Government grant in the future of up to 35%.

To put this into context, the government grant is the largest single source of income to the council, but sits alongside council tax, fees and charges for services and business rate income. In addition, the 35% figure is the worst case scenario. Others have talked in terms of a 25-30% cut and the Chief Exec assured us that the council would not be making firm plans until the figure is known in roughly two years time.

Cornwall Council has already made huge budget cuts - but most of these have been mitigated by the change from seven former councils to a single unitary council. Had we stayed with the old council set up then the impact on front line services would have been much greater than the £10 million we have suffered.

The Chief Executive was questioned about how Cornwall Council could escape the worst effects of such a grant cut. He indicated that growth through development - sustainable and sensible development in his eyes - was one of the ways that the worst effects might be mitigated.

I'm concerned that this is seen by some as the only answer. Of course Cornwall Council should be looking to assist with and enable development which can make Cornwall better, but this has to be balanced against the need to preserve our historic environment and culture and to think for the long term, not just the next couple of years. I am concerned that anyone should be advocating giving developers a free rein which would be a hugely risky venture. That's not the position of Mr Lavery, but is one being put forward by some.

One lesson from recent history shows why relying on growth and development is a risky strategy. In Ireland in the 1990s and 2000s - the 'Celtic Tiger' years - developers were given a free rein and used low interest rates to invest in many schemes which any sensible review would have said could never come off. Jobs and wages rose massively for a time, but then crashed to earth and the whole national economy then needed an EU bailout.

It is right that the chief Executive should be raising this issue now - and starting a debate across Cornwall on how we should seek to avoid further front line service cuts. But I hope that no one seeks unchecked development as the answer.


Monday, 18 June 2012

Cornish Lib Dems campaign for fair pay for Cornwall

Cornwall Liberal Democrats are seeking the backing of the council for the Fair Pay for Cornwall campaign in opposition to plans for regional or local pay agreements. The issue will be debated at the full council meeting at the beginning of next month.

The proposal for regional pay was first put forward by the last Labour government which introduced it for some civil servants. But Tory Chancellor George Osborne has followed this up by asking different pay review boards to consider it for their areas.

Regional (or local) pay schemes would be bad for Cornwall in many ways. It would almost certainly mean lower pay deals for public sector workers despite living costs being as high as most of the South East. House prices are high and the lack of decent public transport makes owning a car almost essential in most parts of Cornwall. Water bills and the high cost of accessing entertainment and leisure also mean families would struggle if wages were cut.

And the slightly higher level of public sector pay also ensures that private sector wages cannot fall too far - preventing a race to the bottom. Cornwall is already the only part of the UK which is in receipt of EU structural funding because our income levels are so low. Cutting public sector pay would exacerbate the situation.

I very much hope that we will get the support of both Independent and MK groups when this matter is debated at full council. I hope too that there will be sensible Conservatives who will also back it. Unfortunately it seems the Council Leader is a lost cause on this. When asked at a public meeting in Launceston about the subject, his only answer was that he "tends to be in favour of anything with the word local in it..."

There is also national Liberal Democrat support for the campaign. During his visit to Cornwall last week, party president Tim Farron MP joined the campaign and, when I asked him about it at a conference on Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also said that he would not be backing regional pay.

UPDATE (19/6) - Coverage of Nick Clegg's latest comments in the Mirror and the local angle in today's WMN.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Oh Good Grief...

Earlier this week I blogged about the incompetence of Cornwall Council over the introduction of a new payment system which is leaving local firms out of pocket. Today I received the following news from one local firm:

"we received the outstanding cheque today for invoice dated 30/4 and cheque issued 12/6 unfortunately it is made out to the wrong person so we will have to return it, despite the payee details being printed very clearly on the invoice"

Friday, 15 June 2012

Cornwall Council doesn't seem to get localism

It seems that Cornwall Council is failing to get the localism spirit, despite the massive changes brought about by the Localism Act. Many changes are being delayed by lack of staff.

The Localism Act gives huge new powers to town and parish councils to take on more responsibility, to run local services better and to save assets of community value. But many of these rights can only be exercised by working with Cornwall Council and the authority seems to be delaying passing on the powers and imposing huge bureaucracy even when they do.

One example is the community right to challenge. This allows town and parish councils, local community groups and groups of staff to seek to take over local services where they think they can do a better job. But Cornwall Council is claiming it doesn't have enough staff to deal with the new power and so it is seeking to restrict the right to make a challenge to just a single month each year. It seems town and parish councils will only be allowed to exercise their rights in March of any year.

The Localism Act also gives new powers to Cornwall Council such as the power to better enforce planning breaches. But Cornwall's response has been to get rid of 35 officers from planning and regeneration service - the very people who are on the front line enforcing the rules.

Yesterday there was meant to be a scrutiny committee debate on the way Cornwall Council is implementing the act. But Julian German, the cabinet member in charge of localism, failed to attend this long-standing meeting so we will have to wait even longer to find out. In the meantime, opportunities for service improvements may be missed.

The officers who were there talked about 'marshalling resources' rather than adding any new staff to the localism team. This attitude was condemned by members from across the political spectrum. It seems that Cornwall Council's ruling Conservative-led administration has failed once again to understand the importance of promoting local service delivery. Liberal Democrats will continue to argue the case for more local decision making powers and more devolution of services.

Cornwall Lib Dems call for cemetery charge re-think

Cornwall Liberal Democrats have called on the Cornwall Council to think again on plans to increase cemetery fees and restrict burial rights to 50 years compared to the current 99 year terms across much of the authority. The call comes as the portfolio holder, Cllr Steve Double, announced the new fees and policies which will come into force from August 1st.

Charges across Cornwall will be standardised with the basic cost of buying a plot and interment being set at £1000. At present, fees range from around £620 to £958.

My colleague Edwina Hannaford has taken the lead on this issue. She said:

"The decision to raise fees across Cornwall is very regrettable. It is one thing to standardise the fees, but this should not have been taken as an excuse to raise charges. Surely an average would have been fairer."

"However we welcome the fact that Cllr Double has backed away from his initial plans to impose charges on families for purchasing a grave for children who die. That was an insensitive and thoughtless proposal."

"In most of Cornwall, burial plots are bought for 99 or 100 years. The proposal to cut this to 50 years is wrong. I would like to see the old terms restored, or at the very least allow families to buy extended terms rather than try to chase them up for a further payment after the 50 years is up."

Cornwall Council has also been asked to consider amendments to the new fees and policies for military graves. Cllr Les Donnithorne, Lib Dem councillor for St Agnes, has asked the authority to consider a policy of waiving charges for any military service personnel who die in the line of duty.

"Service men and women who lay down their lives for this country should be given every honour by Cornwall Council as they are by the nation as a whole," said Cllr Donnithorne. "We should certainly be waiving cemetery fees as a mark of respect for their sacrifice. I'm glad that Cllr Double has agreed to consider this policy."


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fix My Street launches bespoke council versions

There's been an online service called Fix My Street around for some time. It is a website which allowed members of the public to report potholes and other problems with their local roads and pavements to the council.

Now two local authorities have taken it a step further and worked with the web site owners to develop a bespoke version for their areas. So well done to Barnet and Bromley councils. I have made the suggestion to Cornwall Council that they should do likewise.

Lib Dems condemn Cornwall Council payment incompetence

Cornish Liberal Democrats have condemned the Tory-led authority for the incompetent way it has adopted a new payment system which has led to many local suppliers being owed thousands of pounds. And it has been revealed that foster carers in Cornwall are also owed hundreds of pounds by the authority.

Cornwall Council has moved to an ERP - Enterprise Resource Planning - system for managing its relationships with suppliers. However, insufficient preparation for the switch has resulted in many payments being delayed and local firms being left out of pocket.

Among the problems reported to local Liberal Democrats:
  • contractors working on the Caradon Hill Area Heritage Project (CHAHP) were paid up to five weeks late;
  • rent payments to a local trust were delayed;
    council departments have to get 60 page supplier application forms filled out and approved even for some of the most common and simplest purchases from local firms;
  • foster carers are waiting many weeks for their payments for looking after some of the most vulnerable and difficult children in Cornwall.
My colleague Jeremy Rowe has condemned the payment failures:

"This is yet another example of incompetent planning by the Conservative-led council. After the waste fiasco, you would have thought that the council had learned its lesson, but it appears not."

"Local businesses are going through a tough time with the state of the economy. The last thing they need is Cornwall Council being late with their payments. And the delays to payments to foster carers are particularly inexcusable. We should be valuing people who care for vulnerable children, not leaving them out of pocket."

Traffic and parking changes in Launceston get the go ahead after public consultation

After a very good response to the recent public consultation, my fellow councillor Adam Paynter and I met with officers yesterday to decide the next steps on the proposed traffic and highways changes in Launceston.

There were more than a dozen individual changes proposed - from the installation of a disabled bay in Cross Lanes to new residents parking schemes in Race Hill, Kensey Hill and Western Road.

Yesterday we reviewed the responses and the individual comments that had been made. As a result, we made some significant changes to some of the proposals, but, on the advice of officers, have decided to move all of them forward either in their original form or as modified.

You can review the detailed proposals on the Cornwall Council website, but in brief:

- the two parking spaces on St Thomas Road outside the old Newport Post Office will be formally removed
- the residents parking scheme in Race Hill will go ahead but with the entitlement to buy permits extended to areas missed out of the original proposal
- the residents parking scheme and yellow lines at Kensey Hill will go ahead but with the scheme area extended to enable more cars to park there. We will look at whether there is enough scope to extend the entitlement to buy permits
- the 30mph limit at Boyton will go ahead
- a disabled parking bay will be created outside 12 Cross Lanes
- no left turn will be permitted from Kit Hill View (part of the new Wain Homes development) into Hurdon Way
- new yellow lines will be installed outside St Catherine's School in Moorland Road to enable the town bus to get through and we will carefully monitor the impact to see whether an extension is needed in the future
- yellow lines will be introduced at the junction of Windmill Hill and Penworth Close but the scheme will be modified from the original proposal so that the lines do not extend as far
- the motorcycle parking bay will be moved to Southgate Street, next to the arch. The original bays were little used due to being on a slope and this led to motorcycles parking (legally) in bays across town. We believe that the new location will be attractive to motorcyclists while retaining enough space for loading.
- new lines will protect the safety of the junction of St Cuthbert Close and St Stephen's Hill
- a disabled parking bay will be created outside 30 St Joseph's Road
- a limited waiting bay will be created on St Stephen's Hill outside the barber shop
- the residents parking scheme in Western Road will go ahead but with the entitlement to buy permits extended to a property that had been missed off the original scheme
- The yellow lines at the North Western (Southgate arch) end of Madford Lane will be strengthened to prohibit all stopping so as to improve safety in the area. The original proposals for a loading bay outside the bridal shop at number 6 and for a disabled only bay outside the Dental Surgery will not go ahead and these areas will stay as they are at present
- a disabled bay will be created outside 12 Poltamar on Tavistock Road
- the yellow lines in Fair Park Close will become enforceable

The timetable for these changes is still to be decided, but we hope to have the majority in place by the end of the summer or beginning of the autumn. Once in place, we'll keep all of the changes under review. Our aim throughout this has to make our town safer and I hope these changes will achieve that.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Launceston Chamber of Commerce Parking Survey

You may have seen in the local paper a report on Launceston Chamber of Commerce's parking survey within our town. It provides very worrying evidence that Cornwall Council's parking charges and policies are having a significant impact on local shops and businesses.

The Chamber of Commerce sent the survey results both to the Council's cabinet member, Graeme Hicks, and to the Parking Policy Panel. Although they have had an acknowledgement, it seems that neither Cllr Hicks nor the Parking Panel is prepared to meet with the Chamber to discuss the outcomes or what can be done in the light of the evidence.

The attitude from the Council appears to be that they are not prepared to contemplate changes until next March or April.

If you haven't been able to read the survey results, I've re-printed the key findings below:

Following the increase in parking charges in Cornwall Council owned car parks in Launceston in the Spring of 2011, Launceston Chamber of Commerce became increasingly alarmed at the drop in footfall in the town.

The situation started to become apparent in late Summer of 2011 and became increasingly worse over the Christmas and New Year period into 2012. We believed this to be due to a number of factors including fuel price rises and the general state of the National economy.

However we were receiving, through reports from our members, more and more anecdotal evidence that many local people were visiting the town less often and that their visits were being shortened due to the higher cost of parking.

We were hearing stories of people no longer using the local cafes to meet for lunch and of ladies having shorter hairdresser appointments in order to save on the cost of second hour parking. We also heard many stories of people attending appointments and meetings which they suspended while they went to move their cars to a different car park in order to take advantage of a second 50p first hour. We believe this is still going on and we can understand why it might happen when the cost of paying for 2 hours on arrival is so much greater than two separate 1 hour periods.

It was decided in late January to try and turn some of these anecdotes into facts by finding out how much impact the new parking charges were actually having on people's behaviour. To this end, a questionnaire was developed and displayed in a number of shops and businesses around the town who asked customers to complete them over a 6 week period in February and March.

At the same time, it was decided to survey people who live and work in the town on the impact of the new annual season ticket prices, which saw the cost of these permits rise from £195 to £400 in 2011 and a further increase to £470 in March 2012.

It is the firm belief of the Chamber that Cornwall Council has increased the price of this annual permit to the point where it is no longer affordable for a large number of people and is not competitive with market rates for private parking spaces in and around the town, which is currently in the region of £220 to £280.

As a result, many people have sought alternative parking arrangements, which has led to the very undesirable situation whereby residential areas are being choked with cars belonging to people who work in the town centre, to the detriment of the people who live in these areas.

Our survey revealed that a massive 91% of people who used to purchase an annual season ticket have not renewed since the price increase.

More worryingly, only 44% stated they would renew their pass if the price were to be reduced. The best explanation for this would seem to be that people have been forced to make alternative arrangements, with which they are now happy (often they are now parking for free, as evidenced by the result that 60% state they are now using on street parking). This would suggest that the council has a lot of work to do if they wish to win these customers back.

It is also our belief that, as evidenced by the results of this questionnaire, the people of Launceston have cut back on the number of visits they make to the town centre, together with the length of those visits, due to the new charges being made in Cornwall Council car parks.
  • 82% of those completing the survey admit to having reduced the number of visits or their length of stay.
  • 63% of people now only pay for 1 hour or use the 30 minute free on street parking.
  • 56% of people base the length of their stay purely on the cost of parking.
  • 55% of people did not use a Cornwall Council car park, which is an astonishing figure given the prevalence of Cornwall Council owned parking spaces in the town.
These are worrying figures at a time when the High Street is already under pressure from the general economic situation and the competition from out of town shopping areas which are able to offer free parking to their customers.

While a specific question was not asked on the subject, the Chamber of Commerce does not believe that the new charging periods (including the free parking after 4pm) have been particularly beneficial to the town of Launceston. These free hours do not generally fit with the way people use the town, its shops and its businesses, and have been poorly publicised at the ticket machines.

Launceston Chamber of Commerce calls upon Cornwall Council to abandon their policy of grouping towns for car park pricing purposes and urgently review their car park pricing structure (hourly rates and annual season tickets). Only by returning prices to levels which work for Launceston will the council see greater use of their car parks and hence greater income.

We believe the current pricing policy has failed, and huge numbers of people who once visited the town regularly now do not visit at all or cut their visits short due to the high cost of second hour parking.

We specifically draw the council’s attention to Appendix 1 of this report, which contains some of the unsolicited comments written by people on their survey forms. They make for very worrying reading, both for business in our town and the council.

Businesses in our town are under attack on a number of fronts, and we believe that if nothing is done to bring people back into the town as a matter of urgency, 2012 will see a number of the smaller businesses closing, and possibly some of the bigger names in the high street pulling out of Launceston.

Launceston Chamber of Commerce is launching a new town Loyalty Card Scheme in May. Are Cornwall Council prepared to help us save our town centre and regain their car park customers?

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Kensey Valley Meadow litter pick

This morning I joined some of the residents of Kensey Valley Meadow for a litter pick of their estate.

It's a relatively new development, with 200 properties and a burgeoning residents association. There were eleven of us, of all ages, out with grabbers, gloves and vests kindly loaned by the Council's waste team.

In an hour and a half we collected roughly four full bin bags full of rubbish - not a huge quantity, but enough to make a difference for local residents.


If you think your area could do with a litter pick and you're willing to help make a difference, the council can lend the equipment you need, just get in touch with me and I'll pass on your request.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

In praise of the Tweetbus

If you have seen a rather elderly converted hoppa bus around Launceston recently, you might have wondered what it was. The Tweet Bus is the abode of two wonderful individuals, Dave and Sharon, who have been helping Launceston to become one of the most Twitter-connected places in Cornwall.

Twitter is one of a number of social media platforms. It's not for everybody (and life won't end if you aren't on it), but it can help businesses stay in touch with their customers. That's why so many local firms are now taking to the 140 character airwaves. At least 33 local businesses are on Twitter and more are signing up every day.

Perhaps one of the most obvious uses is to broadcast special offers such as Launceston Loyalty Card discounts. That's what a large number of local businesses are doing already.

But Twitter is at its best when it is a two way conversation. Customers can ask questions as well as giving informal reviews. It's that sort of interaction that the Tweet Bus are trying to encourage. And what's more, Twitter is free (as is the advice and help given by Dave and Sharon.

To see the full list of Launceston businesses online, check out the Launceston page of the Tweet Bus website. And don't forget to follow them on Twitter @Tweet_Bus

Cornwall Council paying 90% of Sita's incinerator legal costs

Cornwall Council has confirmed that it is paying 90% of the legal costs of Sita in the on-going legal dispute about the planned St Dennis incinerator.

The payments started after the Secretary of State made his decision to allow the construction to go ahead.

According to the reply I was given at today's meeting of the Waste Development Advisory Panel, the initial planning application, public inquiry and reference to the Secretary of State were all paid for entirely by Sita. However, since the decision by the Secretary of State, Cornwall Council taxpayers have been paying almost all the continuing costs as the decision was challenged in the High Court (and may be challenged further by those opposed to the scheme.

To date, the costs to the Council have been £136,818.

The Panel also heard today that Imerys are refusing to extend an option held by the Council on land for constructing an access road by a single week. If the incinerator goes ahead then a haul road is needed at a cost of around £3.5 million. The decision about whether the Supreme Court will grant leave to appeal (and therefore delay matters further) is due in very early July. However the option on the land needed runs out at the end of June. If Imerys won't extend the option by a week then a compulsory purchase might be the only way forward - a potential delay of 2-3 years at an annual cost of £13 million as well as other (confidential) costs. The meeting agreed that the Leader and Chief Executive should be tasked with negotiating with Imerys to get them to be more reasonable.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Jubilee Weekend Day Three - Fireworks

Tonight the people of Launceston came together in Coronation Park for an evening of music and fireworks.

Organised by the Rotary Club, the event was a real community one with around more than a thousand people in the park. BBC Radio Cornwall's Duncan Warren and Tracey Wilson were also there broadcasting from the event as part of the evening programme. Many thanks to them for coming along and being so interested in our community.

The culmination of the evening was a firework display. Many thanks and congratulations to Eric Chapman, Tony Sandercock and Dave Gordon - as well as the Launceston firefighters - for once again putting on a great show.

Jubilee Weekend Day Two - Poetry

As well as the Jubilee, this weekend is also the annual Charles Causley festival in Launceston. The festival has been going for three years and attracts a wide variety of artists but always as poetry at its core.

The most well known name at this year's event is undoubtedly the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion who will be reading from his new book Silver later today. But yesterday saw a writing workshop and performance by Mark Grist, the former teacher who left the profession to become a battle rapper and performer. (If you want to know what battle rapping is, watch this video - warning, contains lots of swearing).


Mark's performance was of material that will form the basis of his show at this year's Edinburgh fringe, including a poem in praise of red heads and a poem using only one vowel - the letter E.




In addition to Mark, we had performances by two local spoken word artists. The first was Ben Haynes (right) whose work on Hamlet is brilliant. The second was Ricky Lovell, MC Tricky (left), whose work is mainly as a dubstep MC but who does a great job acapella as well. Many thanks to both of them.

Yesterday also saw the main town square street party moved to the town hall because of the weather. I don't think it suffered as a result and the town band entertained a huge crowd.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Jubilee Weekend Day One - gardening

First day of the Jubilee weekend and I joined a wide variety of other people for some gardening in the centre of Launceston.

The event was organised by Ben Robbins of the Eden Project and Margaret Wills of Launceston in Bloom with the help of a lot of the Barefoot Games volunteers. We had plants, compost and equipment kindly donated by a range of people including Homeleigh Garden Centre.

(I have to say, I'm quite glad that I live in a flat with no outside space as the digging took it out of me!)

Also out and about in town were a huge group (a swashbuckle?) of St Pirans Pirates singing and sword-fighting for the crowds.

As well as the Jubilee weekend, the Charles Causley Festival has started with poetry walks, literary lunches and an art display on the ground floor of Liberty House.

Tomorrow I'm looking forward to a community picnic in Priory Park and then the Mark Grist performance at Harvey's in the evening. If anyone still wants to come along to that event, be warned, there were only half a dozen tickets left this morning so turn up early to buy one on the door.








Friday, 1 June 2012

Cornwall Council's road safety hypocrisy

Cornwall Council's complaints about the likely impact of budget cuts on road safety would be taken a lot more seriously if the same authority hadn't postponed important road safety works because its own parking budget didn't add up.