Friday, 31 May 2013

Cornwall's £12 million council tax arrears

A government minister has pointed out that Cornwall Council has missed out on £12 million through non-collected council tax. And he's right to say that every pound not collected is a pound that cannot be spent on local services.

That is why Cornwall Council does so much to make sure that we collect as much of the council tax and business rates that are owed to us as possible.

Anyone with a passing interest in Cornwall politics will know that I have been in that position myself. I know that Cornwall Council does not give up on getting the money it is owed.

Cornwall has one of the best collection rates in the region - and it has been getting better year on year. We collect more than 97.5% of the council tax owed to us and the overall debt is proportionately less than half the average in the region. But Brandon Lewis is right that the uncollected amount adds up to around £12 million over the past few years.

But while the council doesn't give up on money owed lightly, there are some cases where it is impossible to collect. And there are more such cases out there as changes to the welfare system bite. These include the cut in the maximum level of council tax support from 100% to 75%. So now everybody has to pay at least something. And whilst there is additional support available in exceptional cases, this does not cover the entire amount owed.

That decision was taken by the last administration at Cornwall Council and I opposed the change. But we may not change it mid-year and I'm now tasked with enforcing it. What the council will be doing is helping people to put together a payment plan that they can afford but which ensures that the council gets the money we are owed.

So if you owe council tax, please don't think that the authority will give up on the debt. We can't afford to do so. What we can do is try to be as reasonable as possible in helping you pay, but we need to speak to you in order to do so.

Kensey Valley Meadow grass cutting - David Attenborough to be called in?

Just when the residents of Kensey Valley Meadow thought that they were done with developer Elan Homes...

One aspect of the development that is still under the control of Elan is the maintenance of the open spaces on the estate. Cutting the grass and pruning the bushes is a responsibility that has not been handed over to Cornwall Council - although residents are assured that this is the plan.

The trouble is that Elan have not been doing the job they are meant to. The grass has not been cut this year and is now knee deep. The experience of last year was that Elan's contractors turned up once in a blue moon, hacked everything to death and then weren't seen for many months.

The residents of Kensey Valley Meadow deserve better than this from Elan. The developer keeps claiming that they have instructed contractors to come. But as no one ever turns up to do any work, we have to conclude that this is a lie.

I have asked the council to consider legal action to force Elan to keep to their responsibilities with all costs deducted from the bond held by the council over the development. But what everyone really wants is for the developer to do what they are meant to and what they have promised many times that they will do.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Western Road and Pennygillam re-surfacing

I've now also been sent the details and times for the re-surfacing works at the top end of Western Road and round the Pennygillam roundabout.

This work will take place overnight between 4th July and 12th July. This means that the local roads - including the A30 westbound off-slip and Western Road will be closed between 7pm and 6am.

As you can see from the map, the resultant diversions are going to take you a considerable distance out of your way, so plan accordingly.

St Johns Road and Moorland Road re-surfacing

The timetable for the re-surfacing works on St Johns Road and Moorland Road has been confirmed by the council. The work
will take place between Monday 29th July and Friday 9th August during daytime hours.

During this time (between 7.30 in the morning and 6 in the evening), the roads will both be closed and a diversion will be in place - see the map for the route.

Obviously this will cause a fair degree of disruption in the local area, but the state of the roads and the need for large scale re-surfacing and patching means that there is little other option.

If you have any questions, call Cormac on 0300 1234 222

Radio Silence...

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past week. There haven't been any council meetings and I've been getting to grips with my new role. I promise to do better.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Joining the Cabinet (Part 2)

Yesterday I posted that I had joined Cornwall Council's cabinet. Now I can say what role I have been given within the organisation.

My job title is Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resources. Within this role are:
  • Finance (Cornwall Council has a gross budget of more than £1 billion per year)
  • Property (the council owns thousands of properties ranging from public toilets to office blocks)
  • Communications (including the media team, website and social media output)
  • Strategy and Policy (including the Council's business plan)
  • Legal and Democratic Services
  • Information Technology and ERP (ERP is the council's bespoke financial software project)
So it looks like I am responsible for everything from paper clips to twitter!

The other portfolios announced by the new Leader John Pollard are:
  • Jeremy Rowe - Deputy Leader, Localism and Devolution
  • Adam Paynter - Partnerships (including the BT shared services, leisure and libraries)
  • Judith Haycock - Health and Adult Care
  • Edwina Hannaford - Environment, Heritage and Planning
  • Bert Biscoe - Transport and Waste
  • Andrew Wallis - Children
  • Geoff Brown - Homes and Communities (including community safety)
  • Julian German - Economy and Culture 
You can see the full list of who is responsible for what here.

Many thanks for the trust placed in me by my electors, the Liberal Democrat group (who chose me as one of their cabinet members) and John (who gave me this job).

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Joining the Cabinet

Today's full council meeting was the culmination of two and a half weeks of negotiations and discussions on the shape of the new administration to run Cornwall. And it means I have a new role as one of ten cabinet members.

Ever since the electorate decided that none of Cornwall's political groups should be given outright power, we have been working behind the scenes to form an alliance. The Lib Dem view from the start was that the new administration should be formed of as many groups as possible.

Much has been said already about the decision by the Conservatives not to join. My own view is that, whilst they were willing to sit around the negotiating table, it never seemed that they were serious about actually joining an administration under any circumstances.

In the end, the cabinet will be comprised of members from two groups - the Liberal Democrats and Independents. But two other groups - Labour and Mebyon Kernow - have actively supported the formation of the new administration and UKIP are seeking to play as positive role as possible. Only the Conservatives will be actively in opposition.

The commitment from the new Leader - John Pollard - and from the whole of the new cabinet is that we should actively engage with all groups. This will not be a 'them and us' situation and we want to harness the ideas of all 123 councillors in a positive manner. I hope that we will be openly discussing ideas with councillors and the public in a way that the last administration never did. No party or group can afford to be dictatorial when they won 30% or fewer of the seats on the council. I anticipate that there will be a 'mission statement' setting out the aims of the new administration published soon.

Joining John Pollard around the cabinet table will be five Liberal Democrats including myself and four more independents. The roles we will be taking on will be decided over the next 24 hours and I will, of course, blog this as soon as I know. As a cabinet member, I will be helping to take many more decisions for Cornwall and will represent the council in a way that I never have before. But this blog will continue and it will always be my own personal thoughts - it should not be taken to be the official view of Cornwall Council. I'm adding a disclaimer on the right to make this clear.

Also decided today was that Independent councillor John Wood will chair the council for the coming 12 months with Lib Dem Ann Kerridge as Vice Chair. Congratulations to them both.

Finally, I want to say thank you to those who have been in charge of Cornwall until now. The cabinet members who have formally stepped down have put in many hours - often unseen hours. I may not have agreed with many of their decisions. In fact I vigorously disagreed with many. But they showed a commitment to Cornwall that I hope to be able to live up to.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Cornwall Council leadership will be without the Conservatives

Over the past two weeks, I have been working with people from all the other groups on the new Cornwall Council to seek to form a new administration. I blogged last week about the Liberal Democrat desire to bring all the parties together and create a true 'rainbow alliance'.

Now it looks like things are moving forward.

The shame is that it appears that the Conservatives will not be part of the new arrangements. The even bigger shame is that I think a deal could have been done with them if their group leader had engaged better with the process.

It wouldn't be right to give a full blow by blow description of everything that happened. But the leaderships of both Independent and Liberal Democrats groups sought to discuss policy ideas with Cllr Ferguson on many occasions but got no response. We wanted to make sure that there was a firm foundation for the new council which set out a vision for the next four years. In the end, we couldn't even reach Cllr Ferguson to get an answer to our proposals for Conservative involvement after she went away to consult her group.

In fact, the first anyone heard that the Conservatives would definitely not be part of the new administration was when Cllr Ferguson appeared on the radio talking about a load of policy issues that she never thought to raise with us.

As a result, the new council administration will be without a number of talented Conservative voices. I have no doubt that those groups that are serving on it will seek to listen to the views of Conservative councillors and do the best for their divisions as well. But it could have been so much better.

Application for 100 new homes off Upper Chapel

An application has been submitted for 100 new homes off Upper Chapel in Launceston. This is the scheme that was advertised at a public consultation session in the town hall a few months ago.

You can view the details of the proposal on the council's online planning register here (use the code PA13/04056 if needed.)

Although I cannot give a definitive view until I have seen and studied all the application documents, I am hugely concerned about this proposal. The local community looked at the potential for development in all areas surrounding the town as part of the Town Framework plan. Various areas were ruled out for good planning reasons. One of the areas considered was the land off Upper Chapel. This was ruled out because of concerns over highways and access issues as well as being outside the town's development boundary. We did not think that Moorland Road and St Johns Road, or Meadowside and Western Terrace could cope with the additional traffic that would be generated by a new scheme.

Instead, the framework plan recommended the area south of the Link road and around Stourscombe for further development.

Nobody can stop a developer making a planning application for any area - regardless of what is proposed or who owns the site. But I would hope that, when the town and surrounding parishes have been through the process of agreeing a form framework plan, Cornwall Council's planners will take the wishes and needs of the community into account when making their decision.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

What Sheryll should do next

South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray has come fourth in the annual ballot for Private Members Bills in the House of Commons. This is the chance for a backbench MP to put forward legislation.

All the attention will focus on the person who came top of the poll - James Wharton - and the his proposal of an EU referendum bill. But the number four position offers a real chance for Sheryll to propose a change in the law that would really benefit Cornwall.

She won't be short of ideas, but here is something that would do a huge amount for Cornwall and the people here. A bill to require change of use planning permission when someone wants to turn a permanently lived in residence to become a second home would, at a stroke, help thousands of families in Cornwall who cannot afford to own their home.

In far too much of Cornwall, houses that come onto the market are bought by people from up the line who want to use them as second homes. This deprives local families of the chance to buy them and the part-time residence means that local shops and businesses are deprived of trade, putting their future in jeopardy. It wouldn't affect houses already used as second homes, nor would it permanently prevent such change of use. What it would do would be to allow local authorities to judge whether another second home is in the best interests of the long term viability of a particular community.

Cornwall Council recently voted overwhelmingly to ask for this change in the law. It's not a party political thing. But it is a change that would have huge benefits for Cornwall.

So come on Sheryll, why not go for it?n

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Launceston Town Council co-options (and mayor choosing)

Last night was my first meeting as a Launceston town councillor. (I've been to plenty before as a Cornwall councillor). As an annual meeting, there was a heck of a lot of procedure to be followed - allocations to committees and outside bodies and so on - but also the choice of two co-opted members to fill seats not chosen by election (because there weren't enough candidates in two wards.

Seven people had put themselves forward for co-option and one withdrew on the night. But that still left a very strong field. The two chosen by the elected members were Maurice Davey and Jane Nancarrow. Congratulations to them. I would have been delighted to see others chosen too and, should there be a vacancy in the future, I hope that they will put themselves forward.

We also chose the mayor and deputy mayor for the coming year. It was no surprise to see Dave Gordon elected unopposed to the mayoralty and councillors voted (narrowly) for Brian Hogan as Deputy Mayor. I know that both will do a great job representing our town.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Mike Eathorne-Gibbons leaves the Conservatives

It takes quite a lot to amaze me in Cornwall Council nowadays, but the decision by councillor Mike Eathorne-Gibbons to switch from Conservative to Independent less than a fortnight after the election is genuinely amazing.

I also think it is incredibly arrogant and contemptuous to voters.

It would be naive not to accept that people sometimes switch sides. But this is usually on a point of principle - they cannot agree with the direction that their party is taking on a particular issue or on a series of issues and they feel that their only recourse is to leave their party.

Except, of course, that there have been no decisions yet at Cornwall Council and so there is nothing for Mike to be upset about. Indeed, the only decision that has been made that affects him is that the Conservative group has re-elected Fiona Ferguson as its leader.

In an interview with Radio Cornwall, Mike has said he believes he was elected as an individual and not because of his party label. Once again, I think this is incredibly arrogant. Most politicians would like to claim that their electorate choose them because of their amazing work record or personal endeavours. But the truth is most people choose who to vote for on the basis of party label - even if that label is independent.

The voters of Ladock and St Erme will have a chance to express their feelings for Mike's move - but not for another four years.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The parking changes which do Cornwall Council a discredit

Sadly, more and more people are being caught out by changes to parking rules and regulations in and around Launceston. And Cornwall Council is seeing its reputation trashed as a result of a situation that could, and should, have been handled very differently.

Earlier this year the council decided to make various changes to parking rules around the town. One of these was to introduce residents parking schemes in Western Road, Kensey Hill and Race Hill. The problem is not whether or not this was the right decision, but how it was communicated.

I argued at the time that the council should do its utmost to make drivers aware of the changes. I didn't think that the first people knew about any change should be a ticket on their windscreen. I asked for a two or three week period when, instead of handing out fixed penalty notices, the council should be putting notes under windscreen wipers to advertise the change.

But the council refused. They argued that the statutory notices in local papers and the changes to the signage at the side of the road would inform drivers. I have yet to come across more than one or two people who actually read the council's notices in the papers. The form and content is required by law and is, in my view, a colossal waste of money. And the road signage looks exactly the same as what was there before unless you take the trouble to study it closely.

And, to add insult to injury, the parking service claimed that putting notes under windscreen wipers risked the council being sued for trespass. (Which is utter rubbish, by the way. It is the action that the Police have advised)

And so many visitors to our town who have been parking in the same place for years are getting tickets.

I don't blame the traffic wardens who are simply doing their jobs and applying the law completely properly.

But this is a cock-up by the council which should have been avoided and is the sort of attitude which I hope can be changed.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Lib Dems seeking a fresh start for Cornwall with a 'One and All' administration

Since the election last week produced a council in which no single party has overall control, there has been much speculation about how an administration might be formed. The Liberal Democrats have said that we are seeking to be part of a 'rainbow alliance' comprising all of the groups on the authority.

With discussions on-going, it is not helpful to give a running commentary, but our aims are set out in a letter that newly re-elected Lib Dem group leader Jeremy Rowe* sent to other groups last night.

To: All members of the Council

Dear Colleagues

I am writing to open up a dialogue on a way forward for the running of Cornwall Council.

The people of Cornwall have spoken and it is clear that no one group can claim the right to run the council on its own. We have huge challenges ahead and it is clear that we need to put our differences aside.

I would like to suggest that we see if we can create as wide an administration as possible to run Cornwall over the next four years, but we do this based on a common programme of principles which a shared administration would pursue. I hope these are things that everyone can agree on.

  • Protect the services which are important to the people of Cornwall;
  • Improve housing options including the building of new council houses for local families;
  • Keep council tax as fair as possible;
  • Drive the economy to create and protect jobs within Cornwall. Create additional apprenticeships to upskill local young people for the world of work;
  • Take more council decisions in local communities instead of in County Hall;
  • Always seek the best value for money and the most efficient services;
  • Keep our roads safe, clean and well-maintained and support our local economies by cutting parking charges;
  • Campaign for fair funding and additional powers from central government.

The people of Cornwall gave us all a challenge and an opportunity to come together for a fresh start - a One and All council. No one group will have a monopoly on good ideas and we would be happy to discuss anything that you think should be added to this list.

With best wishes

Cllr Jeremy Rowe
Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Cornwall Council

*I was re-elected Deputy group leader at the same time - many thanks to my colleagues.

On Collin Brewer

Yesterday, I was one of a number of councillors who met with disability campaigners at County Hall. The campaigners were protesting about the re-election of Collin Brewer to the authority after his well publicised comments about disabled children.

One of the councillors who spoke was my colleague Jade Farrington. Jade is disabled having had her left femur replaced with a metal prosthesis following cancer as a child. Jade said that she is deeply ashamed to be sharing a council chamber with Collin Brewer.

Jade went on to acknowledge that, having been re-elected by the voters of Wadebridge East, there is nothing that the council can do to 'sack' Mr Brewer. It is just a shame that, having done the right thing by resigning from the last council, he chose to put himself, the council and his comments back in the spotlight again by re-standing.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Re-elected - thank you!

Big thanks to everyone who voted for me to remain the Cornwall Councillor for Launceston Central for the next four years. I got a rather 'North Korean' 70% of the vote.

I've had huge numbers of people give me good wishes and help me and the local team to campaign. So to all who signed my nomination paper, delivered leaflets for me and voted for me - many thanks. I really couldn't have done it without you. Many thanks too to Kris Roberts and Phil Tucker for standing and making it a contest. All politicians get nervous at election time, but without a contest the people aren't properly served.

Elsewhere in Launceston, Jade Farrington won Launceston South. She will take over from Sasha Gillard-Loft. Sasha has been a great colleague for the last four years and just failed in her bid to win the Altarnun division. I'm going to miss her presence on the council hugely. I'm going to have to learn more about planning now. And Adam Paynter was re-elected as councillor for Launceston North and North Petherwin.

Whoever you voted for (or even if you didn't vote), all three of us are here to served everyone in our town. Whatever your issue or concern, please get in touch and ask us for any help that you need.

Across North Cornwall, the Liberal Democrats made five gains taking Padstow, Poundstock, Bodmin St Petroc, Lanivet and Camelford. The Conservatives were left with just two seats.

The Lib Dems are now the largest single party in Cornwall with 36 seats. The Tories collapsed to 31 and there are 35 independents, 8 Labour, 6 UKIP, 4 Mebyon Kernow and 1 Green. No party has overall control and so the groups will have to work together for the good of Cornwall - a positive outcome in a way.

The biggest shocks of the day were the losses of former Council Leader Alec Robertson in Helston and sole Labour councillor Jude Robinson in Camborne.

I'll have a look in more detail at the results over the weekend. In the meantime, sleep beckons.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Dear Voters - Today is YOUR day

I make no apologies for having been so quiet on here over the past few weeks. It's been election time so there has been little going on at county hall and few new announcements.

What there has been is a lot of leaflet delivery and a lot of talking to voters across Launceston.

I've been hugely encouraged and gladdened by the conversations I've had. Whether you are voting for me (or one of my colleagues) or for someone else, I can only think of a couple of occasions where the discussion has been of the negative 'none of you care about anyone except yourselves' type.

Most people have wanted to engage, to have their say and to offer their ideas for what can be made better in our town. I hope that whoever wins in Launceston Central, South and North, they (we?) will take these ideas forward and try to press whoever is in charge for a better deal.

I've walked over 20k on quite a few days this campaign - as well as continuing to deal with casework and attend meetings. I enjoy the work I do representing local people and I very much hope you will give me a chance to carry on doing so.

Whatever your views, please make an effort to vote. Polls are open from 7am to 10pm and you don't need your poll card in order to vote. If you received a postal vote but have not yet sent it back, you can hand it in (with the declaration that came with it) at any polling station.

The counts don't take place until tomorrow, so this evening I will be enjoying a large glass of an adult beverage.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Time to say thank you.

Officially, councillors stay in office for a few days after the election. But I wanted to say a few thank you's on the last 'real' day of my term of office. Hopefully I will still have a job after tomorrow, but that is up to the voters.

I could go on longer than Gwyneth Paltrow at an Oscar ceremony, but I will keep it short and sweet.

Thank you to Mark O'Brien and Rosemary Stone who have run the Launceston Community Network. They have been invaluable in arranging meetings, organising events and liaising with (sometimes recalcitrant) officers. Without them, the role of a local councillor would be a lot harder. The only downside - Rosemary insists on bringing cake to meetings.

Thank you to Oliver Jones who is the regional highways engineer for Launceston. It is he who suffers my (almost daily) reports of potholes and requests for other changes to our road network. It's not his fault if things don't get done - there is usually no money available. But he never fails to make repairs when they can be done and to explain why not (when they can't).

Thank you to Richard Williams, the council's head of legal and in overall charge of all the excellent democratic services team. Richard is the officer I write to most often after Oliver. He has the patience of a saint. Which is very useful for a Wolves fan.

As I said above - there are lots of other people who have helped with many things - council staff, local groups and organisations, residents, business people and random strangers. Thanks to you all.

But if I had to name one organisation who get my 'boo hiss' award for utterly failing to do a decent job looking after the people they are meant to care about...

Step forward Elan Homes, developers of Kensey Valley Meadow, who have done a shockingly awful job in responding to the needs of residents there or my requests on their behalf.

UPDATE - One of my readers suggested that this post reads like I am not optimistic about the result in my division. Thanks for the concern! I never take voters for granted, but am hopeful of still being able to represent Launceston Central for another four years. I just think it is right to say thanks to the people who have done most to make my job possible so far.