Friday, 30 November 2012

Why I'm now asking for donations

If you look on the right hand side of this blog, you'll see a new addition to the page. It's a donation button which allows readers to donate via PayPal to support the work of myself and my colleagues in Launceston.

Making a donation is easy - you don't need a PayPal account, just a credit or debit card and about two minutes of your time and there is no minimum.

So why am I asking for donations?

In May next year, every councillor in Cornwall is up for re-election. I want to be in the best position to carry on working for the people of Launceston and of Cornwall. But campaigns cost money. The Lib Dems aren't funded by trades unions or big business. We rely on small amounts from our members and people who think we do a good job.

So if you support what I have been able to achieve in my time as a councillor so far - and if you want me to be able to continue my work alongside my Lib Dem colleagues in Launceston - then please consider making a donation.

Over the past three and a half years as councillors, my colleagues Sasha, Adam and I have achieved a lot for our town:
  • We have saved our local library from the threat of closure
  • We have won the campaign for lower season ticket prices in our car parks and we are campaigning to get fairer pay and display charges
  • We have saved local buses after the council (twice) tried to cut routes in North Cornwall
  • We have got local roads repaired 
  • We have helped hundreds of local people with casework problems
If you are able to support our campaign to carry on this work, please consider making a donation - large or small.

The small print: Donations via this method may only be made by UK citizens on the electoral register or by companies trading in the UK. Donations will be treated in accordance with PPERA and donations over £500 (I wish) will be notified to the Electoral Commission.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Councillors say no to office weddings

Another day - another victory for common sense at Cornwall Council. Today, councillors backed my campaign against holding ceremonies in offices.

In what many saw as a petty move, the Conservatives were proposing to force those who could only afford the cheapest wedding or civil partnership service to hold them in busy registration offices rather than the bespoke ceremony rooms.

Today the communities scrutiny committee looked at these proposals as well as the wider proposal to change registration office hours and to downgrade registration staff. We felt that this was a retrograde step at a time when the council should be doing more to encourage people to come to Cornwall for marriages and civil partnership ceremonies. There were also concerns that the proposals would discriminate against people with disabilities.

I've had a lot of correspondence from registration staff on this issue and they clearly felt that their concerns were not being listened to by management.

I'm happy that the scrutiny committee backed my strong rejection of the proposals and demanded that the people who take the decision (who weren't actually at the meeting today) think again.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

TRAC project (part one) - decision delayed

Cornwall councillors tonight voted to delay a decision on the controversial TRAC project which would introduce a multi-use trail from Polson to Egloskerry.

The section under discussion was, according to the meeting agenda, that from Newport to New Mills. But officers quickly claimed that it was only the off-road section (about half of the Newport to New Mills trail) that was up for discussion as criticism of the on-road sections came from councillors and the town council.

The criticism was because of the perception of danger to trail users because of the plan to make them share road sections with cars and heavy good vehicles to and from the scrapyard.

In the end, committee members were left baffled by the lack of understanding as to what the proposal was for and what the impact on traffic and road safety would be. So they voted to defer discussion until next month.

My own view is that the application is confused and that doesn't help. I support the view of the town council that the massive on-road sections create dangers for pedestrians and other trail users and I want to see the trail taken off-road if at all possible. If it is to go ahead with these on-road sections then I want to see more detail about how often the hedges will be cut and what sort of signage there will be. That detail isn't in the application as it stands and I think that is wrong - we can't afford to take it on trust.

At the end of the day, I want to see the trail happen. But I feel that there is still a chance to take the majority of the trail off-road and that chance should be grabbed.

Lib Dems defeat proposal to force poorest to pay extra hundreds in council tax

Cornwall councillors today opposed a plan by the Tory-led council to cut the amount paid in council tax benefits to some of the poorest families in Cornwall.

The Corporate Resources scrutiny committee was discussing the council's plan of how to replace the current council tax benefit scheme, responsibility for which is being passed to local authorities.

The proposal from the Conservatives was to force non-pensioner households who currently get council tax benefit to pay at least 25% of the bill in future. Council tax benefit is a means tested benefit which is only given to the poorest households in Cornwall. Most people in receipt of this benefit just don't have the means to pay and will simply rack up more and more debt. This would hit poor families but also create additional problems for the council s it sought to get money from people who just don't have any.

The Conservatives also planned to cap council tax benefit at Band D. The effect of this would be to impose an additional burden on larger families - especially those who live in more wealthy areas with higher property prices such as Truro and coastal villages. This would lead to the social cleansing of poorer families from areas with higher property prices. The cabinet member responsible for finance - Fiona Ferguson - proposed creating a special hardship fund to deal with those who could not afford the extra tax. But in my mind this would simply impose yet more paperwork on families who would automatically qualify for the additional support.

So at today's meeting I made the proposal to abandon the cap at Band D and to retain the existing system of council tax benefit. This inevitably means that the money will have to be found from somewhere and I made the suggestion that the extra income coming from new council tax levies on second home owners and empty homes should be used. This is around £4.5 million of new income and Liberal Democrats believe that we should be using it to protect the poorest families from unnecessary hardship.

I'm delighted that the majority of Independents and MK backed my proposal and this now forms the recommendation to Cabinet when putting together their budget.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Wooda Lane Leat - getting it cleared

We were lucky in Launceston that no homes were actually flooded during the recent bad weather. There were lots of very sodden gardens and some houses had a close run thing, but it seems that we escaped the fate of other towns and villages across Cornwall.

One of the main reasons why our town escaped the worst was flood preventions schemes like the leat that runs alongside Wooda Lane, You may well never have seen it. And if you have, you were probably trying to avoid driving (or falling) into it. But it copes with a huge amount of run off from the valley and the nearby hills.

This time it worked well, but residents told me today how close it came to overflowing. The water was only a couple of inches from the top. Part of the reason for this is just how overgrown the leat has become and how much rubbish has been thrown in there.

I've asked the Environment Agency to organise a clearance of the leat to that it can cope even better with future potential flooding. But please don't ever throw rubbish into a leat. Not only is it unsightly, but it starts a damming effect which can cause flooding.

Many thanks to everyone from the council and the Environment Agency and all the other people who helped to save people, possessions and property over the last few days.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Cornwall Privatisation - There are no more than 13 alternatives

Cornwall councillors had a briefing this morning about the privatisation proposal (joint venture, shared services, outsourcing - call it what you will).

As little as a month ago, we were told that there was no realistic alternative to the BT privatisation bid. Now there appear to be no fewer than thirteen different options on the table. Amazing what you can find when you look.

I can't say what is the best option at this stage. We are waiting for the proper write up of all the different alternatives. What I can say is that each offers very different outcomes. There may be bigger potential savings on offer with the BT bid - but there is some scepticism from members about how achievable these are and they involve a lot more loss of control. If people still want their local councillors to be able to affect and change local policy then this will be less possible following privatisation.

Today was all about asking councillors whether the council was considering the right options. By and large, I think they are. I just hope that they look at them all in proper depth and don't try to present us with a half-baked study.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Fiona Ferguson becomes fourth Tory leader in a month

Congratulations to Fiona Ferguson who was this evening voted in as the new leader of the Conservative group on Cornwall Council.

Fiona becomes the fourth leader of Cornwall Conservatives in just over a month. Alec Robertson resigned... Armand Toms was picked to be the Tory nominee for the council leadership but withdrew... Jim Currie was voted in ac council, but not group leader... and now Fiona.

Rumour has it that if Fiona resigns they are lining up Rafa Benitez next

Cornwall Council brings a whole new meaning to 'office romance'

In another mis-guided penny-pinching move, Cornwall Council is trying to save money in the Registration Service. One of the proposals they want to implement is to conduct marriages and civil partnership ceremonies in busy council offices.

So when the bride walks up the aisle (carefully avoiding the photocopier), she may struggle to make herself heard above the noise of ringing phones and Jim from Accounts going through the latest spreadsheets. It's hardly the special day that everybody wants when they get married. I've heard of office romances, but this is ridiculous.

These proposals won't apply to all weddings and civil partnership ceremonies - just to those conducted at the cheapest rate. But as this option is chosen by some of the least well off people in Cornwall, I think it's discriminatory.

But the penny-pinching doesn't end there. Cornwall Council wants to force registration staff onto lower rates of pay and to diminish their status. We have a very well-trained and committed staff, but this will inevitably lead to some of them quitting and a less professional overall service for the people of Cornwall.

I want to halt these proposals and save our valued registration service. I've written to the Leader of the Council asking for him to put a halt to this proposal.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cornwall parking income frozen

Cornwall Council's cabinet has voted today to freeze parking income for the coming year. That's a great result and was against the recommendation of the new cabinet member Bert Biscoe.

Cllr Biscoe and colleagues Mark Kaczmarek, Neil Burden and Lance Kennedy had wanted a rise in income of 3.2% which would have led to minimum 10p rises in charges.

The plea being made by officers and those in favour of a rise was that the council needs the money in order to provide other services. But the council has never made its parking budget - they are just numbers on a piece of paper. Last year the council fell short by £3 million and had to be bailed out twice from other funds resulting in delays to road safety work.

And as the Launceston season ticket trial has proved, you can actually make more money by cutting charges.

So I'm delighted that the freeze should be agreed. Cornwall Council still needs to take a serious look at parking charges. Is it meant to be a business or a service? And should charges be set from Truro or should there be a more local set up which listens to the concerns of local councillors, businesses and residents. This year the council refused even to come to Launceston to a meeting set up to discuss this issue locally.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Congratulations Councillor Ashley

Congratulations to new Launceston town councillor Ashley Crapp who was tonight co-opted onto the council. It was a close result with Ashley receiving seven votes and Leighton Penhale six votes. James Rea also put his name forward for the position.
 
Commiserations to Leighton who also stood for the last town council vacancy where he lost out by just three votes. He's getting closer to victory and my hope is that he is successful in his next attempt - whether a co-option or election.
 

Hospital chiefs get a light grilling from town council

Representatives from Peninsula Community Health attended tonight's meeting of Launceston Town Council to update members on the situation at Launceston Hospital.
It wasn't quite to full roasting that PCH got at the recent scrutiny committee but was at least a light grilling. Some members, including Graeme Facks-Martin, said that they were not satisfied with the explanations given.
 
One significant change since the scrutiny meeting is the number of beds currently closed. At the time of the scrutiny meeting it was said that seven were out of commission. Now that number has risen to ten.
 
A second change from the scrutiny session is the hoped for date for re-opening the beds. Then it was hoped that they might be back open by the end of the year or early January. Now it appears that PCH wants to get some of the beds open by mid or end of January, but not all of them. The PCH reps were invited to come back to the council and report again if the beds were not fully open by February.
 
From my own point of view, I'm still dubious about the ability of PCH as an organisation to successfully manage our community hospitals. All we can hope is that this is enough of a shot across the bows to elicit real change in that organisation.


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Roger Harding's parking campaign

Fellow blogger Rob Simmons has posted about a leaflet (see left, click on the image for a bigger view) being put out by the Tories in the St Ives constituency. The problem with the leaflet is that it argues against the very policies that they are implementing in power.

One section says:

 "Cllr Harding has long argued that cheaper short-stay car park charges are fairer and help boost the local economy. Roger continues the campaign to see further measures taken to reduce the cost of parking..."

Obviously Roger will have taken every opportunity to press his case for a reduction in parking charges, won't he? So how many meetings of the Parking Policy Panel of Cornwall Council has he turned up to out of 23 since the authority came into being in 2009?

One.

On December 14th 2010.


Launceston Hospital beds 'hope to be back open by the end of the year or early next'

This morning, councillors got the chance to hear from and quiz the boss of Peninsula Community Health - the company that runs cottage hospitals in Cornwall including Launceston Hospital. There has been a lot of concern at the number of bed closures in these hospitals, including 7 of the 20 beds in Launceston.

Although some of the closures have been due to refurbishment, most are down to lack of staff and problems recruiting new staff. In Launceston, much of the problem was because staff were borrowed from Stratton Hospital while that was being refurbished and, when it re-opened the staff went back forcing bed closures in Launceston.

What we were told by Kevin Baber, the Chief Exec of PCH, is that they are recruiting staff but the process takes time. He says he hopes to have some of the closed beds at Launceston re-opened by the end of the year or early in 2013.

To be honest, I was not impressed by the explanations given and hardly comforted by the lack of a firm plan for re-opening these beds. I appreciate that you cannot hold on to staff forever, but the turnover rate of 12% per year seems extraordinarily high and staff I talked to complain of very low morale. And who can blame them when the same problems afflict our cottage hospitals year after year.

Despite the bed closures, Mr Baber told councillors that his organisation was coming close to delivering on their contracted targets. My complaint is that the NHS is far too concerned with ticking boxes on contracts. I think the people of Cornwall expect cottage hospitals to have all their beds open the whole time and wouldn't be impressed with statistics that showed that they were 'only' failing to meet targets by around 5%.

I was moved to ask whether the current PCH set up is truly fit for purpose. What's clear is that they need to do a lot more to reassure patients and other residents in Cornwall that they are able to provide the comprehensive service that we all expect.

Lib Dems welcome Cornwall proposal to end second home council tax discount

Cornwall's Liberal Democrats have welcomed a proposal by the authority to end the council tax discount for second homes and for empty properties. The proposals had been demanded by the Lib Dem group for many years and were finally made possible by legislation from the Liberal Democrats in Government.
 
My colleague, Lib Dem group leader Jeremy Rowe, said:
 
"The second home council tax discount is an anathema which harms local services. I'm delighted that the Lib Dems in government have made the change that allows councils to charge full council tax on second homes and equally delighted that Cornwall is proposing to implement the change at the first opportunity.
 
"The authority is also proposing that empty homes will be exempt from council tax only for the first month. This change is aimed at encouraging owners not to leave homes empty when there are more than 25,000 families on the housing waiting list. Indeed, the council is going further and proposing a penalty premium of an extra 50% on empty properties left vacant for more than 2 years. The council has a number of grant programmes in place to help the owners of empty properties bring them back into use, so there should be no excuse.
 
"In addition a loophole that allowed homeowners to escape council tax if they could show that a house was undergoing major repairs is being closed and these will only get a 50% discount for a single year and then have to pay full council tax thereafter.
 
"Cornwall's Liberal Democrats have been calling for these changes for many years. I'm delighted that the council has agreed to act. We need to protect local services from cuts as much as possible and it is right that second home owners and those who own empty homes should be asked to do their bit."


Cornwall Council's parking charges displays utter contempt for motorists, localism and reality (yet again)

Next week, Cornwall's cabinet will debate the proposed parking charges for next year. Their draft shows utter contempt for motorists, for localism and for reality. But as this is the third year with such problems I suppose we should be used to them by now.

Over the course of the last few months, the parking panel has traveled to all the different parts of Cornwall to ask about what charges local people would like to see. There was the caveat that they wanted the new charges to raise at least as much as the current ones. We could dispute the elasticity of demand for such a charging scale, but at least they listened.

So various ideas were proposed and costed and, although not perfect, they are getting gradually better.

But the final proposals don't suggest the acceptance of these charges. They want to add an additional 3.2% for inflation. As the minimum increase is 10p, it means that some charges will be increased by far more than inflation.

The additional increase wasn't suggested to local councillors who may well have come to very different conclusions if they had known. So it's contempt for any concept of localism. But what should we expect from a department which high-handedly refused to attend a local meeting to discuss parking charges in Launceston despite it being a constitutional requirement that they do so?

It also shows contempt for reality. This is exactly the same as happened last year. Officers saw a shortfall in the budget and decided to try to make it up by increasing costs. What happened instead was they created an even bigger funding gap and had to be bailed out twice in a single year. The truth is that if parking charges are too high then drivers simply won't use Cornwall Council car parks.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the trial £200 season ticket deal in Launceston ended on October 31st. It was a success for local drivers - who got a fair deal - for local residents - who got commuters out of their streets - and for Cornwall Council - who made more money than they were doing from the high priced tickets. But despite these successes, the price has gone back up to £470. I've been asking the council to make the deal permanent, but I can't get an answer and there is nothing on the subject in the paper going to Cabinet.

The new Cabinet Member for Parking, Bert Biscoe, came to Launceston to discuss charges with myself and Sasha Gillard-Loft last week. When he left I got the impression that he understood where we were coming from. However this paper shows that his officers still don't get it and I very much hope he can get a grip on his department soon.

Liberal Democrats will institute a fair deal for drivers and for town centres. We'll cut parking charges back to sensible levels and we are confident that this will bring shoppers back to our towns. Parking should be a service, not a business.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Is vote fraud a price Cameron is happy to pay?

One of the practices that has risen up the news agenda in recent years has been vote fraud. The level of ballot manipulation has risen - partly due to changes to make it easier to vote by post - and politicians and commentators have also started to take more notice of the problem that has always existed.

For all that some people would have you believe that we live in a perfect system, there has always been electoral fraud in the UK and the law is frequently changed to try to stamp it out. We have adopted the secret ballot and abolished rotten boroughs. We have also tried to stamp out intimidation and group voting.

But one issue that has become more prevalent has been fraud involving postal votes. In the past, a postal vote was only issued for cause - in other words if an elector was ill or away from home on polling day. Then the Labour government introduced postal voting on demand. I think they did so for good reason - turnout was falling and they were trying to make it easier to vote.

But taking ballot papers out of the supervision of election officials increases the risk of fraud. And there were cases of significant fraud taking place. The Birmingham case (where the judge described the system as being like a banana republic) was the most high profile, but there were many others.

One way to combat fraud of this type (and other frauds too) is to introduce individual voter registration. Instead of a 'head of household' filling in a voter registration form on behalf of the whole household, each elector will have to fill in their own form. This allows for personal identifier - signatures or dates of birth or NI numbers - to be collected. Then, when a person applied for a postal vote, officials can check to ensure it is really the voter themself making the application. We already check that the person who returns the ballot paper is the person who applied for it - but that doesn't help if it was fraud in both cases.

This is a significant step in the right direction for UK democracy. But it is all at risk because David Cameron won't let the Bill be debated in the House of Lords. It is a government bill which has already been debated in the Commons and passed two Lords hurdles - so why the problem?

The issue is that Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard has tabled an amendment to rule out boundary changes until 2018. Cameron is worried that this amendment will be passed and he will lose any chance of the Conservatives' 20 seat bonus that they expect from the boundary review (the review that will also introduce a Devonwall seat, by the way).

Cameron has already tried a 'cash for constituencies' deal with the Lib Dems by offering party funding reform in return for the new seats. But Nick Clegg has refused to play ball. Now he is apparently trying to cobble a deal together with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and DUP.

In the meantime, whilst Cameron tries his best to get his new seats, he is delaying legislation that will help to prevent vote fraud. According to reports by Paul Waugh from this morning's Number 10 lobby briefing, the Prime Minister might even be trying to declare the bill to be a financial one in order to assert the right of the Commons to pass it without Lords interference. Sounds to me like the nationalists have told him where he can stick his deal.

We have a winner!

The winner of the first Launceston Loyalty Card prize draw is.....

(drum roll)

Jan Broom of Launceston.

Congratulations to Jan who picked up her prize - a surround sound stereo system kindly donated by Hockridge and Stacey - this morning.

In the photo are Karl Hockridge and Jan Broom with myself and Jeremy Loft of the Love Launceston Loyalty Card scheme.

The next prize draw is for a year's worth of free hair cuts, courtesy of Diamond Cutz.

Friday, 9 November 2012

And the winner is...

I've just made the draw for the winner of the first Launceston Loyalty Card prize draw.

More than 120 people entered by posting the cut out coupon from the October loyalty card leaflet in one of the participating businesses. The competition was organised by Paul and Jeremy Loft from Gillard's Sweet Shop where the draw took place.

The winner will receive their prize - a surround sound stereo system kindly donated by Hockridge and Stacey Appliance Centre - on Monday. We'll announce the name (and post a picture) then.

The next prize draw will be in December as part of the bumper Christmas loyalty card promotion.

Police elections - how to vote

One thing that will be new to almost everyone who turns out to vote in the Police Commissioner elections next Thursday is the voting system. The Supplementary Vote (SV) system gives you a chance to make two choices.

The ballot paper has two columns - for a first choice and a second choice. In each case you mark your preference with an X.

So long as you mark a first choice, your vote will count. But you also have the chance to say who your second preference is with another X. Obviously if you cast it for the same candidate as your first preference then it won't count - but your first preference will still be valid.

What does this mean in practice? In order to win, a candidate needs to have a majority (ie over half) of the first preference votes. If no one has this majority then the top two vote-getters go through to the second round. All the ballot papers cast for the remaining candidates are examined and if the second preferences are cast for one of the top two then these votes are transferred to the second choice. The second choice votes are added to the first and the person with the most votes wins.

Although this gives voters a little more voting power, it's a far from perfect system. The Alternative Vote (AV) system rejected by voters in the referendum last year is far better.

What's wrong with SV? Well for a start, voters have to guess who will make it through to the top two if they want to make sure that their vote will count. If neither of their preferences is for one of the top two then their vote is, effectively, wasted. And with ten candidates on the ballot in Devon and Cornwall for an entirely new position with no voting history, this might be a challenge even for ardent political geeks like me.

For an example from history, look at the first London Mayoral election back in 2000. In that election, the official Labour candidate failed to make the top two. So a voter who chose a fringe candidate as their first choice and put Labour second might have thought they were voting with their heart first and head second. But in the end neither vote counted.

In my view the ideal voting system should not involve tactical voting or guesswork of this sort.

And there is no guarantee that the ultimate winner will secure more than half the votes cast. In most SV elections in the UK (the system has previously been used for a number of mayoral elections in 12 towns and cities), comparatively few people have ended up casting a second preference vote that transfers. That's not to say the second preference votes that do transfer don't matter - in many cases they have been crucial. But a combination of lack of understanding of the system and poor guesswork leaves most voters out in the cold.

Next Thursday electors should go out and cast their first preference for the candidate they think will do the best job as Police Commissioner. If they truly want their second preference to have a chance of counting, then they should use this for someone they think will end up being in the top two. Historically, local elections in Devon and Cornwall have been between the Lib Dems and Conservatives across most of the patch and between Labour and Conservatives in the cities. To be honest, a voter not including one of those three as either their first or second preference is unlikely to see their vote count. And even I as a member of one of those parties thinks that is wrong.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Police Elections - Home Office foul up means people don't know who they are voting for

Just about the only thing that's been said about the Police and Crime Commissioner election is how little people know about it.

The poll takes place next Thursday and, here in Devon and Cornwall there are ten candidates standing. Of these, four represent political parties and six describe themselves as independents.

Of course, I'm biased. I think that the Lib Dem candidate Brian Blake is the best qualified for the job. He's an ex copper and will bring a wealth of practical experience to the role.

But people will want to make their own mind up, so how can they do so?

Radio Cornwall have done a grand job - organising two hustings events which are being broadcast today. But with such a vast area covered by the election, the chances of getting leaflets through your door - particularly from the independents - is remote. Many people will go online - and all the candidates have websites - but what it you have no internet access?

The Home Office have set up a hotline with the number advertised on the information booklet that has been sent to every household. You are supposed to be able to call that number and be sent a print out of the candidate statements. Except that those who have tried this have yet to receive anything.

I've had a number of calls from local residents with postal votes who have asked for this information but not received it. They are getting very anxious about whether they will be able to vote at all if they don't feel confident that they know something about the candidates.

I've asked the council to look at this situation as a matter of urgency. Cornwall's Chief Executive, Kevin Lavery, took the role of chief returning officer over the objections of councillors. In doing so, he took on partial responsibility for making sure that people understand how they vote. Given the failure of the Home Office to get information out, I believe it falls on Mr Lavery to take action. It's not his fault that the Home Office have failed - but I think he should be picking up the pieces.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Cabinet backs 48,500 homes target

By four votes to three, Cornwall Council's new cabinet today backed the controversial 48,500 target for the number of new homes to be built in Cornwall over the next twenty years. This recommendation now moves to the full council as part of the draft local plan.

As I've blogged before, I'm not hung up about the numbers per se. But I want to see a greater emphasis on increasing the proportion of affordable homes - particularly social rented homes and new council housing - that are built as part of any new development. The new plan sets a target of just 30% for Launceston and many other towns and I feel that is too low.

I also spoke up for allowing local communities to do more to set their own targets for new development. So long as they can show how they can cope with the additional demands from those on the housing register and so on, I think that our starting point should be to let local communities decide. It appears that the Cabinet has moved towards this idea in Truro - altering the 'target' number downwards to meet the local figure. So why not elsewhere?

I got a comment from one Launceston resident who asks where the schools, medical facilities, jobs and other infrastructure will come from. I agree. I complained during today's meeting that this looks too much like a plan just for houses and that it doesn't address the other needs that communities have. Apparently that information is to come.

What Launceston has said is that we are prepared to have new housing, but only in places (mainly south and east of the Link Road) where they will not place undue demands on our road network and only if they are developed in conjunction with new employment opportunities and all the services and infrastructure that we also need. Thankfully, we got the reassurance from officers that our locally developed framework document would be given planning weight so that it will hold up against inappropriate proposals for development.

The full council debate will be very close.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cornwall's lower affordable homes target based on short-term thinking - UPDATED

Among all the other big decisions being taken by Cornwall Council at the moment, the issue of the new local plan (previously known as the core strategy) is one of the biggest. It is being discussed by the Cabinet next Wednesday and will be decided by all 123 councillors at the December council meeting.

The headlines will focus on the 49,000 target for the number of new homes being proposed for Cornwall over the 20 year lifetime of the plan.

One way in which this number could be brought down is through a better target for the proportion of affordable housing being provided by developers. With more than 25,000 families on the housing register, we need every one that we can get. (We should also be making better use of our powers to encourage empty homes to be brought back into use.)

The current local plan proposal is for a mere 30% affordable housing target for Launceston and most of Cornwall. This is a huge drop from the previously agreed figure of 50%. I have questioned this and been told that it is based on what we can expect to get in the current property market. To my mind that's appallingly short-term thinking. Although the property market is currently very depressed and we might have to accept 30%, no one seriously thinks that the market will not recover and we should be setting the figure for the good times (knowing we can offer accept lower) rather than the bad (as there is no provision for an increase).

I'll blog later about a couple of other key failings I think exist in the draft plan.

UPDATE - I've had it clarified that the affordable housing percentages can be altered as a result of changes in the economy and that the plan as a whole can be reviewed on a five yearly basis. Obviously that's a relief of sorts, but I remain convinced that we are planning on the basis of bad times rather than setting more ambitious targets and being prepared to compromise.

A courageous decision by someone on the fourth floor...

I've just received the following email from officers at Cornwall Council:
In consultation with the Chairman, the Council meeting has been moved from 4 December to 11 December 2012 to enable a full and informed debate on the Governance Review and Strategic Partnership for Support Services. 
And so it seems that someone on the fourth floor is determined to press ahead with yet another attempt to get councillors to agree to shared services.

To recap: At the September meeting, councillors voted against shared services/privatisation. The (now ex-) Leader decided to press ahead nonetheless.

Last month (having sacked the Leader) we debated the issue again and put the matter on hold pending a full investigation into other alternatives including an employee own mutual, a shared services partnership with other public sector bodies but excluding a private company and a private-public tie up to bid for contracts outside Cornwall.

I would have thought that all those studies would have taken quite a bit of time and effort and would have fully used up the three months that BT have given the council to decide on their bid. But someone seems confident that councillors will be in a position to decide the issue in pretty short order.

All I can say is that it is a pretty big risk to take if councillors get it into their heads that the alternatives have not been exhaustively considered.

A Question of Balance

This post may seem a bit nerdy, but it's nerdiness with a purpose.

With the appointment of Padstow councillor Steve Rushworth to the Cornwall Council cabinet, a place has opened up on the Strategic Planning Committee - cabinet members are not allowed to sit on planning. It's interesting to see who might be chosen by the Conservative group to replace him.

Ideally, the membership of the committee should reflect Cornwall as a whole. There is a rule to enforce political balance and that means that there are eight Conservatives, six Lib Dems, six Independents and one Mebyon Kernow member on the 21 person committee. There is no formal rule about geographical spread, but you would hope that there would be a rough balance.

This is where the current membership falls down.

There are currently just two members from the St Ives constituency (one Lib Dem and one Independent). This compares with five from Camborne, Redruth and Hayle (three Cons, one Mk and on LD), four from Truro and Falmouth (three Indies and one LD), four from St Austell and Newquay (one LD, one Con and two Indies), three from North Cornwall (one Con and two LDs) and two (both Cons) from South East Cornwall.

So you would think that, to create a fairer geographical balance, the Conservatives ought to pick a member from St Ives constituency or South East Cornwall.

But no, the name in the frame (I hear) is another member from Truro and Falmouth. And, to make matters even more unbalanced, it is another member from the Falmouth/Penryn community. If so, that would mean that there would be four Falmouth or Penryn members on the one committee - hugely disproportionate.

Members of the strategic planning committee, as with members of other quasi-judicial panels, have to judge the applications that come before them on the basis of planning policy and planning law. Party political considerations should never come into it and neither should geographical. I'm sure that every member would claim that they don't. But it doesn't look good to see an already unbalanced committee becoming even more so.