Sunday, 29 September 2013

Four reasons I won't be backing a 6% council tax rise

A number of Cornwall councillors are asking the authority to consider a 6% council tax rise next year alongside the 1.97% rise that we are currently proposing as part of our budget. Although I think it is right that there should be an open debate about this issue, there are four key reasons why I won't be backing this idea.

First some background. Cornwall Council has to save £23.9 million next year (based on a 1.97% tax rise) in addition to cuts previously made or agreed. This is due to increasing demand for key statutory services such as adult care, an additional 1% cut imposed by the government and a pay award (of 1%) agreed nationally for our staff.

The proposers of the motion are seeking to require the cabinet to put forward an option for a 6% rise alongside our current proposal. Here's why I think this is wrong:

1. People cannot afford to pay
Although the economy is showing some signs of recovery, we are still a long way off the position we were in before the banking crisis. Most people have seen their pay frozen or have received only tiny rises in recent years. And we have seen for ourselves that many people are already finding it very difficult to pay their council tax. This includes the 19,000 or so households who were previously judged to be so poor that they got 100% council tax relief. They now have to pay at least 25% of the bills and many of them cannot. Thousands of people (not all from those paying for the first time) are facing court action because they have not paid. I think it is wrong to seek to impose a tax rise above inflation on Cornwall. It will result in increased hardship and lead to more people being dragged into the court process.

2. It will require a costly referendum
The government requires that any proposal for a council tax rise above 2% must be approved by the people of Cornwall in a referendum held in May (after the new budget has come into effect). I simply do not believe that such a referendum is winnable. Added to which, the referendum must be paid for out of our budget and it would cost about £920,000. That's almost a million which would, in my view, be better spent on front-line services. And if the referendum is lost then the council will be forced into emergency cuts and to re-bill everyone at a cost of more than £100,000.

3. It will waste time and money
The proposers of this motion will argue that all they are asking for is for an alternative to be provided alongside our recommendation. But lots of officer time will be spent working up such a proposal and the measures proposed by the cabinet if we have to provide such an alternative will almost certainly not be the ones which those who favour this course would prefer. So it will need to be amended again with lots more officer time involved. The option to bring forward an alternative budget (at 6% or, indeed, any other figure) will always be there for those who support such a move. So why waste time and money preparing a straw man budget that nobody will agree with?

4. It will mislead
Although those who are advocating this course understand this well enough, I believe most people who are not well versed in local government finance will think that a referendum and an increase above inflation will mean there will be few or no cuts if it goes through. But whilst a high council tax rise would mean less savings would be needed, the truth is that instead of the £23.9 million of savings needed by a 1.97% rise, we would still need to make about £16 million of cuts once the costs of the referendum are accounted for. In my view, the logical alternative would be to put forward an option of a council tax rise which would require no cuts at all. But that would be a rise of about 19% or £240 on a band D council tax bill and I think that has even less chance of winning referendum approval.

I respect the motives of those who are putting forward this motion and think it is good to debate such issues. But I, for one, will not be voting for it.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Politicians talking to people - how politics ought to be

Conservative group leader Fiona Ferguson might have labelled them 'a massive PR exercise' but I think that the series of public meetings I am holding on the Cornwall Council budget are a fantastic way to understand more about what the people of Cornwall think about how we should approach the financial challenges we face.

And it is something the Conservatives didn't do in their past four years in office.

I believe that this is how politics should be. As councillors, we do not shirk the final decision, but it is surely right that we should be listening to the communities of Cornwall to hear what they think before we cast our votes.

As I have blogged before, Cornwall Council faces additional cuts of £23.9 million next year and as much as £196 million in the four years after that. I simply don't believe that the council can look the same in five years time as it does now faced with such challenges.

We can hope that the cuts won't be as harsh as this - we have to wait until after the 2015 general election to know precisely what we face. We can also hope that Eric Pickles will come to accept the argument being put forward by rural authorities that we do not receive fair levels of funding compared to urban councils despite services costing about the same.

But we have to balance our budgets and prepare for the worst.

Part of what I am doing is asking people what services they want us to preserve above others. I also want to know what they would be prepared to see delivered by others on our behalf and which services they would be prepared to see lost if it means that others can be served. I am also asking how we might increase income or cut costs in a way that does not damage services.

Some of this work is through consultation with our staff, with town and parish councils, with businesses and through online consultation. An extra element - and online budget calculator called YouChoose will launch next week.

I have also sought to meet with each of the political groups in county hall to understand their unique viewpoint. Every group has taken up this opportunity except the Conservatives.

But we are also holding public meetings. We started off with 19 - one in each community network area. The idea of these has proved so popular that we have now added four more, partly at the request of the Non-aligned group and the Labour group. I'm glad to have been able to do so.

As well as the questions posed above, we want to help people understand the challenge we face.

I believe that our meetings have been well received. It is true that we have not had hundreds at each one, but they have been lively conversations and at every one there have been new ideas or new angles that we will take away to consider. But even when the comments are about issues we are considering, it is valuable to hear the strength of feeling and whether attendees think we are on the right track. I cannot promise that every idea will make it into the budget - either for next year or the medium term review which we have also started on. But every one is being considered and all the views expressed will be made available to each councillor before we vote on the budget in late November.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I hope that when we put forward our final budget proposals for the next financial year and our review areas for the medium term, they will see that we have taken account of what they have suggested to us.

The previous administration didn't do anything like this. In one year there was a series of four meetings led by the Independent councillor who chaired the council's finance scrutiny committee. That was useful, but it wasn't in any way to the same extent as this one and certainly wasn't led by the Conservatives or the administration. Indeed, a number of Conservatives have attended the current events and one Conservative councillor has even attended two! Perhaps their group leader does not speak for them.

Since Fiona made her views known, there have been numerous tweets from people who have attended the meetings held so far to say that they thought them useful. If you have yet to attend a meeting the list of the remaining events can be found here. If there is not a convenient meeting for you to come to then you can watch a webcast meeting at 6.30pm on October 10th and submit your comments or questions online.

It's a big programme of meetings, but the costs are tiny - just about £600 to hold all 23 public events.

Of course, it is perfectly within the rights of Fiona and the Conservatives not to take part - although it is disappointing that she does not seem prepared to work with the other groups to put together a budget for the people of Cornwall. No doubt she is waiting to receive her instructions from Conservative Central Office as to what alternative they should put forward.

Western Road houses get the go ahead

Two new houses on Western Road in Launceston are to be built after an inspector overturned the decision of Cornwall councillors to reject a planning application.

The houses will be built on land next to 32 Western Road although the entrances will be on Carboth Lane. With others, I have made representations about the lack of outside space for the proposed houses and that there would be a retaining wall of up to 4 metres at the back of the properties - in one case just eight feet or so from the back upstairs windows. These arguments were accepted by the committee which voted to deny planning permission.

Nevertheless the inspector has upheld the appeal by the applicant and says that the amenity space (ie outside space) will be ok.

I'm disappointed by this decision. I'm not opposed to the idea of housing on this site but I do worry that the quality of the homes will not be what we need in Launceston.

The inspector also commented on the concerns that the development will pose a threat to the stability of Western Road. He has ruled that construction works cannot proceed until the council is satisfied that the retaining wall will be strong enough.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Young people getting more of a say on Cornwall Council decisions

Young people will be getting more of a say in the decisions being taken by Cornwall Council's Children and Young People Portfolio Advisory Committee in the future.

The committee will now include as formal members Cornwall's three members of the youth parliament (MYPs) or their deputies.

This represents a massive step forward in giving young people in Cornwall a real say in decision making at the Council. Organisations are often accused of speaking for young people rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.  We wanted to change this and encourage them to work with us.

Inviting the MYPs to take part in meetings at the beginning of the process rather than just asking them to comment at the end means that they can now feed in the views of children and young people and directly influence decision making at the Council.  This will help to ensure that we are providing the services they want rather than the ones we think they should have.

Launceston Oktoberfest (in November, but who's quibbling?)

Hot on the heels of the hugely successful beer festival in the town square, Joe and his team at Penpont Brewery (and the excellent Beer Cellar in town) are organising another event.

This one will be a German style Oktoberfest with beer, sausages, beer, Oompah music, and, er, beer taking pace on 1st and 2nd of November.

This event will be a two day one in co-operation with the local pubs. On the Friday night it will take place in a range of pubs with different beers in each pub. On the Saturday, events will move to the Ballroom of the White Hart.

I'm looking forward to it.

Launceston Hospital to fully re-open

Good news - if a little belated - that Launceston Hospital will be fully re-opening from 10th November. This has been a saga that has run for many months with between seven and ten beds closed for long periods and a temporary period of full closure.

Cornwall councillors, as well as the town council and local residents, had been very concerned about the loss of these beds. Whilst we were assured by the company managing the hospital - Peninsula Community Health - that they had no intention of closing the hospital permanently, there was a concern that the number of beds might be reduced for a long period and that the range of clinics and other services would suffer.

Community hospitals such as Launceston provide a very valuable service. They can't offer the acute treatment available from Treliske or Derriford, but they can help many people with less intensive treatment needs and are often a place where people who have been in an acute hospital can complete their recovery before going back to their former life. Keeping those beds closed had an impact on the work of the council and on the number of treatments that the acute hospitals could provide.

The major challenge for PCH was to recruit staff. I had questioned the management ability of the organisation given the huge cuts in beds across Cornwall. However I am delighted that they have now resolved these staffing issues and I look forward to seeing Launceston Hospital fully open and to the facility being able to offer an increased range of treatments to local residents.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Cornwall Council reviews zero hours contracts

Cornwall Council will be reviewing the use of zero hours contracts as we seek to ensure that none of our staff are being exploited in their terms and conditions of work.

Cornwall Council has approximately 300 members of staff on zero hours contracts as well as 134 in schools and 20 within Cormac. These staff are employed mainly within three areas – registration services, adult education and the music service - where they enable the council to respond to fluctuating demand for services and avoids relying on agency workers.

While some workers appreciate the flexibility provided by a zero hours contract, we recognise that the fluctuating nature of the contracts does not provide the same financial stability and security as employment contracts with defined working hours.

We are concerned to ensure that our use of zero hours contracts operates in the mutual interests of the workers concerned, the council and, of course, council taxpayers and service users.

As a result some weeks ago the Cabinet initiated a review of the zero hours contracts inherited from the previous administration. Once completed, the results of this review will be considered by the Cabinet.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Upper Chapel Public Meeting

Tonight there was a huge turnout at the public meeting to discuss the plans to build 100 houses at Upper Chapel.

The meeting was organised by Cornwall Council's strategic planning committee - which will take the final decision on October 24th in Truro. Both Adam Paynter and myself asked for it because of our concern that local voices would not be heard at a meeting in Truro.

I didn't count the attendance but would estimate it at over 100. About 22 people spoke and every one objected to the development proposal. I think there is little doubt in the minds of the committee members there (not all could make it) that the people of Launceston oppose this plan.

The main reason for objection was the local highways. Neither Meadowside and Western Terrace, nor Moorland Road and St John's Road can cope with the extra traffic. There is also the worry about the impact on local services like schools, the medical centre and town bus.

As local members, neither Adam nor I spoke at the meeting as we have our opportunity to do so at the decision making meeting.

Earlier in the day there was a site visit by the committee and local councillors. As well as seeing the application site itself, we visited St Johns Road to see the school and police station and the narrow roads. We also visited Meadowside and the committee tried the junction of Western Terrace and Western Road for themselves.

Committee members are not allowed to speak or answer questions at these meetings - which can be strange and frustrating - as they are not allowed to prejudice their eventual decision which has to be taken on the 24th of October.

Meeting Cornwall's Buyers

This morning I went to a fantastic event at Kingsley Village organised by Cornwall Council and other public sector organisations in Cornwall. More than 700 people were due to attend and there was even a 50 person waiting list. It was organised by the council's procurement team who deserve big thanks.

The point of the event was to encourage Cornwall's businesses, charities and voluntary sector organisations to do more business with us. Cornwall Council (and the others) have a vast purchasing budget for goods and services. We want to do as much of this business as possible with local firms as this keeps the money and jobs within Cornwall.

In some cases, the procurement rules are set by the EU and we cannot change them. But what we can do is to try to help local firms through the procurement process. With smaller contracts, Cornwall Council can set the procurement rules and we should be doing more to simplify them and only ask the questions that need to be asked to award the tender.

But we can also make sure the tenders on offer are as attractive as possible to local firms. We need to achieve good value for money, but we can split some big contracts into smaller blocks so that local small and medium sized firms can make bids.

We should not just be looking at working with businesses. There are many services that could possibly be provided by charities and voluntary sector organisations. At a budget consultation meeting last night I met with a staff member from one of these who was keen to see what they could do.

And we can do more to work with other public sector organisations to share costs and buy jointly where it is appropriate. That's why I spent part of my time this morning talking to the other buyers - the rest of the public sector in Cornwall - about how we might do more to align our timetables and buy together.

With the financial pressures facing the council at the moment, it makes sense not just to get value for money but also to try to make sure that as much as possible of what we spend is recirculated within the Cornish economy.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Lib Dems vote aganst the bedroom tax

This afternoon, the Liberal Democrat party conference voted against the bedroom tax.

Many of us have said that, while the concept of the policy was fair enough - to do more to encourage people in social housing to downsize - the practicalities made this impossible from the start. The supply of housing is just not there to enable those who are willing to move to do so, yet they get penalised just the same. And there are many tens of thousands of people with disabilities whose homes are specially adapted. These adaptations would need to be done all over again if they moved at a cost of millions to the public purse.

So the concept of the policy might have been fine in theory, but was always impossible in practice without harming those who were willing to do the right thing.

So today the conference voted in favour of a motion that seeks to review this policy.

Which is great, but the party has to accept that its MPs (largely) voted in favour of the measure in the first place. So we need to do more than pay lip service to the need to end the policy and reverse the many harmful effects of the period it has been in force.

Unlike Conservative or Labour parties, the decisions made by Lib Dem party conference become party policy. It's a free vote where Nick Clegg's vote has only the same weight as that of the newest delegate. I hope that the party leadership and MPs take active steps to implement this call for change within the coalition and, if unsuccessful, make it a key plank in the next manifesto.

However well intentioned the original decision, it's time for our MPs to accept that the policy was wrong and do all they can to make amends.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Someone doesn't like a government policy. Grant Shapps goes OTT

Grant Shapps doesn't seem to understand that the worst way of downplaying a bit of news you don't like is to raise it up the news agenda by over-reacting.

A report by a UN functionary that nobody has every heard of before criticises the changes to housing benefit in the UK. Well that might not be great news for the government, but I would suggest the best way to counter it would be to re-state the policy or blind the media with detail.

Not Mr Shapps of course. His reaction is to write to the UN Secretary General to complain. And his biggest complaint seems to be that the report uses the term 'bedroom tax' rather than the government's preferred euphemism of 'spare room subsidy'.

It's no secret that not everyone thinks this reform is a good one (me included). An item on the Today programme that would quickly be forgotten has been blown out of all proportion by Shapps' actions.

It all reminds me of this:

"Dear Mr Echo..."

HS2 - The minister flaps and flails

Apparently today is the day of the government's big fightback on the subject of HS2, the plan to spend £42 billion on a new high speed rail line that will knock half an hour off the journey time from London to Birmingham.

There is concern in Cornwall (and other parts of the country) about the diversion of huge amounts of funding to this one project and the exclusion of other parts of the country. It resembles the Olympics in this respect.

On its own, I think the concept of HS2 is a valid one. Our railway infrastructure is pretty creaky and modernising it is a good thing.

But spending so much money on the first part of the line with the full link to Scotland (and the start of real benefits for large parts of the UK) not likely for 30 years or so makes it a pretty long term commitment. Nothing wrong with that. But it does seem as though most of the rest of the UK will be missing out for generations.

Radio Cornwall had Transport Minister Simon Burns on this morning (apparently the senior bods were being reserved for the 'good news' areas). He flapped and flailed (and ultimately failed to convince) that there would be benefits from HS2 to Cornwall. His argument is that, once the full 'spine' was completed (in 30 years time) then spurs could be constructed to other parts of the UK. In other words, in 30 years time, Cornwall and the South West will be bidding with the rest of the UK to get the next stage. I won't hold my breath.

He also claimed that businesses won't be looking to relocate along the line of the upgraded line to the detriment of those areas not on the path. I bet that's not what his colleagues are saying to radio stations along the route.

The other good news for Cornwall, according to the minister, is the plan to electrify the Great Western line. Which would be great. Except that what the minister didn't say is that the plan is to electrify the section from Paddington to Cardiff - not the route to Devon and Cornwall. So our current diesel trains will remain, taking 5 hours or more to reach London whilst other areas (equally deserving) get the upgrade. You can imagine the scenario when the electrification is completed - to avoid high speed electric trains being stacked up behind our diesel chuggers, our service will be cut back further.

And all the while, the franchise for the Great Western service is held up further and we are kept in the dark about what rail services we can expect in the future.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Upper Chapel development - public meeting next week

Next Wednesday is the public meeting to discuss the proposed development of 100 houses on land to the north of Upper Chapel. The meeting takes place at 6pm in the town hall and all are welcome.

This gives a chance for local residents to make their views known to Cornwall Council's strategic planning committee. The committee will be making their decision at a later date and the law states that they cannot take part in that decision if they have 'pre-determined' their position. In other words, they will not be able to make their views known or answer questions next week, they are there to listen.

Earlier in the afternoon, the planning committee will be having a look at the site and the local area and considering the key issues.

Budget consultation in Launceston - tomorrow

A quick reminder that the Launceston event which forms part of my budget consultation roadshow takes place in the town hall tomorrow from 6.30pm until 8pm.

You can find out more information about the budget process and consultation here.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Welcome Cllr Steve Knightley, new councillor for Wadebridge East

Last night, Lib Dem Steve Knightley was declared the winner of the Wadebridge East by-election triggered by the resignation (again) of Collin Brewer. Steve had missed out on election back in May by just four votes and won yesterday by 9 votes.

It's a great result for an excellent local candidate. It also gives a further boost to our local MP Dan Rogerson. The Lib Dems now hold 16 of the 21 council seats in North Cornwall and this win - in Wadebridge - is in the supposed heartland of Tory PPC Scott Mann.

The result also means that the Lib Dems are now the largest single group once again on the authority. The new balance is 37 Lib Dems, 36 Independents, 30 Conservatives, 8 Labour, 6 UKIP, 4 MK and 2 others.

Whilst it was a narrow (but welcome) win for the Lib Dems, UKIP, Conservatives and Labour took a step backwards. The Tory candidate was Stephen Rushworth who was defeated in the Padstow seat he previously held back in May.

Budget consultation meeting - St Austell

Last night saw the first public meeting to discuss the council's budget for the coming year and the medium term future. It was held in St Austell and we had about 40 people present and a really good debate.

The structure of the meeting is that I give a briefing of the challenge facing the authority - the need to save an extra £23.9 million in 2014/15 and as much as £196 million over the next four years.

I also set out options available. To my mind we cannot simply chip away at services as has been done in the past. In reality, we have to make a choice about what Cornwall Council will look like in four years time - and it won't be the same as it is now. We have to choose to do a few things well and understand that there are some things we will have to stop doing altogether.

But cuts are not the only option. We can also look to increase our income through fees and charges and through higher housing numbers, more renewable energy schemes and selling our services to other organisations. But many of these are controversial issues which need proper debate. There aren't any easy answers.

So I asked what people thought was acceptable and what they thought preferable.

It was good to get such a wide range of views and ideas. Many are those we have already started to consider - but it is good to get views on these. Others were genuinely new ideas and we have undertaken to consider every idea put forward.

Some of the ideas put forward by the people last night were faster and bigger devolution to town and parish councils; ending the subsidy to Newquay Airport; cutting staff numbers and making sure those that remain are as efficient as possible; building more wind turbines; and selling council assets like offices and county farms. All of these will be considered during the budget process.

One question asked - by the current mayor of St Austell and former Cornwall councillor Steve Double - was for a guarantee that the council will retain the number of staff in the town who are currently based there.

This is a guarantee that I can't give at this stage. The policy until now has been to consolidate staff within a town (ie move them to a more efficient central office in the town and out of smaller, more expensive and less efficient offices). That's pretty non-controversial. But there is another debate that I think we must hold about whether we want to go further. I don't have any preconceptions about what the outcome will be. But I can't agree that we should close off debate on issues which could make very significant savings. What is guaranteed is that the debate will be held with local town and parish councils and local Cornwall councillors - not dictated from Truro - and that debate will be held without pre-determined outcomes.

At the end of the meeting I asked for a straw poll on attitudes to council tax levels. I asked people to indicate whether they broadly supported a council tax freeze (and the additional cuts that would be needed if we followed this path); a council tax rise of around 2% as is currently shown in the draft budget; or a rise of 5% which would require the approval of the people of Cornwall in a referendum. This would mean we would only have to make around £18 million of additional savings but it would be at the risk of harsher cuts if the referendum failed. There were 3 votes for the freeze, 15 or so votes for a 2% rise and 4 votes for the 5% rise. This was only indicative (it is not a case of the loudest voice winning through) but I will continue to ask the question at each of the meetings.

Tonight the next meeting takes place in Perranzabuloe Parish Rooms at 6.30.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

UKIP - the high tax party

The deputy leader of  UKIP on Cornwall Council has announced that he will be backing a 5% council tax rise for next year. This is more than double the council's proposed 1.97% increase and will require an expensive referendum to be held.

Cllr Harry Blakeley was speaking in a finance committee meeting yesterday when the budget proposals were being discussed.

Our draft budget - which is now open for a first round of consultation until mid-October - is proposing a 1.97% rise in council tax. The Liberal Democrats have always said that we would seek to keep council tax as low as possible and we proposed a freeze for the current year. Unfortunately, further government imposed cuts in our budget mean that we believe a small rise is necessary for next year.

The rules state, however, that any rise above 2% needs the agreement of the public in a referendum. That process itself costs almost £1 million and has to be paid for by the council - meaning less money for local services.

The referendum can only be held in May and, if not supported by the public, then the council has to send out new bills and make immediate cuts to services.

I don't think Cornwall can afford to take the risk with our services and I don't think it is right to ask hard pressed families to pay even more in council tax than the small rise we are proposing. So I think that UKIP's proposal is irresponsible. It is also particularly shocking when the party sought election on the basis of being a low tax party.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

River Kensey fenced off after sewage spill - UPDATED

The River Kensey is currently fenced off at Prior's Bridge on Riverside following a small sewage spill. The Environment Agency has taken the action to protect people and their pets who might normally venture into the water.

I am assured that the spill was small and is limited to a short stretch of the river but the decision to close off the popular area has been taken as a precaution to ensure that there is no hazard to health. It is anticipated that the riverside will be back open as usual at some point tomorrow.

In the meantime, please stay outside the orange barrier and don't allow pets to go into the river.

UPDATE: Just to reassure everyone that the area has been given the all clear and the fencing has been removed.

Cornwall Council won't be using lie detectors again (at least if I have anything to do with it)

Earlier this year there was a storm when it was revealed that Cornwall Council was employing a company to use lie-detector technology as part of a review of people claiming the single person council tax discount.

Whilst it is perfectly right and proper that we should make sure that no one is claiming a discount to which they are not entitled, I objected strongly to the use of such invasive technology which was being used without the knowledge of the resident. I was not alone in my objections but the then Conservative Leader of the Council went ahead anyway.

Today I was asked a question at full council about future use and I gave a guarantee that any decision to use such technology in the future would be the subject of a vote of all councillors. But I won't be bringing such a proposal forward and, if one does emerge, I will be voting against it.

UPDATE: Press coverage of the issue

Cornwall Council takes action against payday loan companies

Cornwall Council is taking action to stop the promotion of payday loan companies after an announcement at today's full council meeting.

Leader John Pollard announced that we would stop allowing advertising of high interest loan companies in bus shelters owned by the council and that we would write to bus companies, other bus shelter owners and the owners of billboards in Cornwall to ask them to do likewise.

We also recognise that people use Cornwall Council owned computers to access the sites of such companies. We will take action to block such sites from staff computers and also investigate if we can do the same for our public access computers in libraries.

Instead, we will promote the credit union which offers a lower cost borrowing facility.

I don't like being over-regulatory. But I think that high interest 'payday' loans can be very damaging to individuals and their families and that we should be seeking to promote local lower cost solutions instead. I've had a number of conversations with colleagues at Plymouth City Council who have done this already and I think their work is worth copying.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Cornwall's budget - briefing members and staff

Today I have been briefing fellow councillors and the authority's staff on the budget for the next financial year.

Cornwall faces some pretty huge challenges. We have to make savings of £23.9 million next year in addition to those which were already agreed of £19 million.

And we have to save approximately £196 million by the end of 2018/19 - four years away. (This number depends on various government decisions and so will vary a bit, but probably not massively).

We can't pretend that we can make all those savings just by trimming services a bit. So called 'salami slicing' will trim services until they are virtually worthless. Nor can we pretend that we can solve the problem by paying officers a bit less, by cutting the number of councillors or by cutting waste. Of course we will cut waste wherever we find it. And we can debate cuts to councillor numbers or officer pay. But between them they won't save more than 1-2% of the amount needed.

Instead, we are asking the people of Cornwall to decide what they want their council to look like in four years time. We can try to preserve the services that people think are most valuable, but that will be at the expense of other services changing out of all recognition or being cut completely. We want the people of Cornwall to tell us what our priorities should be.

We have published a first draft budget based on a 2% council tax rise. Given the new cuts passed down by the government over the last 12 months, that is what the cabinet thinks is the right balance. But we are open to suggestions both as to the right level of council tax and where the initial cuts should be made.

More details of the savings proposed are being published and debated over the next few weeks. You can have your say by attending one of 19 public meetings being held in every part of Cornwall.

In the meantime, I have also recorded a video for the council's staff and we are asking for their ideas as well.

This is what my Launceston colleague Jade Farrington has written on her facebook page:

The first draft of next year's budget was presented to Cornwall Councillors today. Officers and cabinet members stressed that it's exactly that - a first draft - and made it clear they were open to alternative suggestions as to how money can be raised and saved.

Cornwall Council's grant from central government has been massively reduced and the people of the duchy are faced with finding cuts of £196 million by 2018/19. When you consider that the council's entire net revenue budget is just over £525 million you can see the scale of it. We're talking about serious cuts and an end to some very valuable services. Cornwall Council can't avert this as local authorities legally have to balance their budgets. The only way it could do that and keep services at current levels is to put your council tax up by more than 20%. I haven't met anyone who wants that to happen and a rise of more than 2% would require a referendum of everyone in Cornwall. That referendum would not be won and it would cost the council up to £1 million to run it, meaning an extra £1 million of cuts would follow the inevitable "no" vote.

This all equates to £24 million less for services in the next financial year, assuming a council tax rise of just under the 2% threshold. If the authority freezes council tax then there will be around £1 million more cuts.

Understandably people are finding these huge figures hard to grasp. Lots have suggested cutting the pay of top council staff (some of whom receive six figure salaries) and councillors (who get just over £12,000). To put this in perspective, that would save around 1% of the total the council is being forced to cut.

Lots of people would also like to see the council charge more council tax to second home owners. Unfortunately the council is legally charging them all it can and is incredibly constrained by central government. Unbelievably, the council has 1,300 statutory duties as set out in edicts from Westminster. This means Cornwall Council has 1,300 things it has to spend your tax on, regardless of whether councillors or local people think they're a good idea.

This all makes for quite depressing reading, but everyone needs to be aware of what is coming. Some services you rely on may not exist in a year's time, so if you care then you need to make sure you make your case. The cabinet member for finance, Alex Folkes - Cornwall Councillor for Launceston Central, has organised 19 public meetings to give you the chance to tell him which services you would like to see protected and those you would (reluctantly or otherwise) be willing to see reduced or axed altogether. Arguing that all services must be protected simply isn't an option, for the reasons I've just outlined.

I know Alex is genuinely interested to hear your ideas, so please take 90 minutes of your evening on Wednesday, September 11th to go along to Launceston Town Hall at 6.30pm and have your say. Please share this poster to make others aware and start thinking about what you would like to protect and how we can raise the money needed to do that.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Councils selling electoral registers - the truth is not what the Daily Mail would have you believe

Tomorrow's Daily Mail leads with the splash headline:
"Sold for £5 - your personal details"
The story sets out the details of something that has long been the case - that councils are forced to sell copies of the electoral register to anyone who pays the appropriate (low) fee. All of this is covered by the law and local authorities have no say over the sales or the amount charged.

When councils ask for your personal details to compile the electoral register, the form contains a box which you can tick if you do not want your details to appear on the edited version which is made available for sale. Again, this form is prescribed by law and we cannot alter it. The only way to make more information about the consequences of not ticking the box available would be to spend more money on extra awareness campaigns. Whilst I would like more people to be aware of the edited register, I can't see that these information campaigns deserve money as a higher priority than, say, schools or adult care.

My personal view is to agree with Big Brother Watch who compiled this report. I think that the electoral register should be compiled for the management of elections only and not to enable junk mail companies to bombard my letterbox. Even with the 'edited' version and ability to opt out, the use of the register by junk mail companies is a disincentive to register and therefore disenfranchises people.
But the law is that that two versions of the register will be compiled by councils like Cornwall and we have to comply with it. The full register may only be used for limited purposes and every elector has the right to opt out of the edited version that is made available for sale to businesses. It is unfair to put the blame for sales of the register (and the subsequent junk mail that results) on Cornwall Council. We are only following the law in this respect.

So the true version of the Daily Mail front page should read:
"Councils obey the law"
But that's not going to sell many papers, is it?

UPDATE: The WMN is also running the story.