Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Tredydan Road re-surfacing

It's great that St Thomas Road, St Johns Road, Kensey Hill and the Pennygillam area have all been re-surfaced this year. They were roads that I had been campaigning to get done for some time on behalf of local residents.

The one road that we were still waiting for a date for was Tredydan Road. The first stage of works have now been confirmed for  9th-12th December.

The good news is that this will include works to the corner of Wooda Lane up as far as the 'no through road' sign, and round the corner into Treloar Terrace.

The bad news is that this is just first stage patching works to prepare for the full re-surfacing which won't be happening until some (unspecified) point in the new year.

These works will make the road a lot smoother and safer, but will not be the finished article. I will continue pressing for the council the schedule the full re-surfacing to take place as soon as possible.

More Launceston road closures - UPDATED

UPDATE - Because of representations regarding late night shopping on the 13th, the Church St works will now be taking place from 5th-11th December and the High St works from 3rd-4th December.

I have received notice of three more road closures in Launceston before the end of the year.

1. Closure of High Street from 5th-6th December. (dates now changed, see update above)
This closure is for ducting works connected to the installation of superfast broadband in the town centre.

2. Closure of Church St from 9th-13th December. (dates now changed, see update above)
I have asked that the council make a requirement that all such works be completed and the road fully re-opened by 2pm on Friday 13th at the latest. This is the date of the annual Launceston Late Night Shopping event and any closure or disruption would have a significant effect on one of the biggest trading days for local shops. This closure is for ducting works connected to the installation of superfast broadband in the town centre.

3. Closure of Upper Chapel from 9th-13th December.
This closure will affect the section between the junction with Meadowside and the junction with Chapel Hill and is to repair a leaking water main. Access to both Meadowside and Chapel Hill will be maintained. If you are affected by this closure and want more information, call 0844 3462020 

Tory candidate's anti jobs, anti savings campaign

You can tell he is gearing up for a general election as Cllr Scott Mann is busy trying to argue against everything that his Conservative colleagues did when they were in power at County Hall. 
In the case of the proposal to build new offices in Bodmin, his colleagues were at least half right. By moving the current Bodmin-based staff to new offices, the council will save running costs immediately and recoup the building costs in just a few years. In other words, it will save taxpayers money.
As part of the new Liberal Democrat - Independent administration at county hall, I have been looking at a plan that would save even more money by building a bigger office in Bodmin. The scheme that has been developed would see staff numbers preserved in St Austell, Liskeard or Wadebridge - which has been a very legitimate concern for those towns. Instead, the spare capacity would be filled by our partners at BT Cornwall who will be bringing new jobs to Bodmin.
A scheme which brings new jobs to North Cornwall and save taxpayer cash has got to be a good thing for everybody. It's a shame that Scott and the Conservatives don't see it that way.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Launceston town centre road closure 25-27 November

The short stretch of Western Road that runs between the Conservative Club and the zebra crossing at Broad Street will be closed for two days from 25th to 27th November.

The map on the left shows this stretch of road - which is not the main road running down to Newport.

Drivers will be signposted via Dockey, Madford Lane, Southgate Street and Briad Street to avoid the road works, but hopefully local drivers will know the best way to get where they need to.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Newquay-London air link judged eligible for Government support

Good news that the Newquay to London air link has been judged by the government to be eligible for public service obligation funding. This means that it can be subsidised by the government because it is an important link which might not be commercially viable without support.

Earlier this year, the current operator of the route, FlyBe, announced that they would be ceasing the service from March next year. They said that it was not commercially viable. This put at risk Cornwall's air links with the capital. Businesses in Cornwall believe that having an air route to London is important in helping them to trade and we know of at least one firm that has said they will consider relocating away from Cornwall if the air route is lost.

Ever since the FlyBe announcement, Cornwall Council has been working hard behind the scenes to try to secure a replacement. We are still in talks with a number of potential commercial carriers for the route, but it is possible that none will decide the route is commercially viable. So we have also been talking with the government about whether the route would qualify for public service obligation status.

Ministers have now decided that it would and they will be notifying the European Commission of their decision before airlines are invited to tender to operate the service. This process will take at least two months.

Nothing is certain yet, but the council will continue to work as hard as possible to keep the London link.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Upper Chapel plans unanimously rejected by Cornwall Council

The proposal to build 100 new homes on land to the north of Upper Chapel in Launceston was today rejected unanimously by Cornwall Council's strategic planning committee. My hope is that the applicants accept their defeat and don't press on with an appeal that affronts local wishes and local democracy.

My huge thanks to all the councillors on the committee who voted against the plans in spite of an officer recommendation to approve. Particular thanks to Bernie Ellis and Andrew Long for proposing and seconding the rejection.

Thanks also to the public speakers - Dave Gordon and Graham Facks-Martin from the town council, Terry Jones from St Thomas parish council and local resident Beryl Parish. All made a very eloquent case against the plan, as did my colleague Adam Paynter.

This is what I said to the committee:
"I would like to thank those members who attended the site visit and packed public meeting on this proposal.

Those who attended would have noted that no-one spoke in favour of the application. Indeed, I have spoken to hundreds of local people about this scheme and not found a single person who supports it.

I chaired the town framework process which you have been told about. We rejected the idea of any development in this area and I believe that you should reject this application on the same basis.

That basis is the certain detrimental effect on local highways and increased traffic congestion.

There are two principle access routes to this site. One is along Meadowside which is a quiet estate. Unfortunately, the junction at the end of that estate at Western Terrace is a very difficult, many would say dangerous, junction and most local residents choose not to use it wherever possible.

The other route - that chosen by most drivers - is through Moorland Road and St Johns Road. This has a narrow, traffic light controlled, junction at the end but to get there you have to go down a very narrow and windy estate road. This route is further complicated by having a primary school and police station part way along.

At peak times - during the morning and afternoon school rushes - this route is practically impassable. Despite many attempts over the years, it has proved impossible to cut the number of cars here and we usually see cars double or triple parked or parked on pavements. I do not believe that it is possible to fit a single extra car down this road at peak times and this proposal will produce such traffic demand.

Whilst the Police Station does not usually create too many additional cars, it should be noted that this is the only custody suite in North Cornwall. As such, there are times when there are considerable numbers of additional cars associated with the station - far in excess of the capacity of the station car parks. This leads to many extra cars parked in Moorland or St Johns roads at unpredictable times.

I believe the highways officer has not properly considered the congestion aspect in any sort of detail. I regret that as I believe that this is a significant planning reason for refusal and is the principle concern of local people.

I would further argue that the likely impact on many other local roads has not been properly considered. When they cannot get down Moorland Road, many drivers use Carboth Lane or St Catherine’s Hill for access and the likely impact of additional traffic, however few, on these roads will create additional congestion.

There is some discussion within the report about the introduction of traffic calming measures along Moorland and St Johns Roads in order to provide greater safety for those using the school. I do not believe that speeding is a significant issue in this area and the proposal to add traffic humps or chicanes will create far more problems, rather than fewer.

Finally, there is the risk to our town bus route. This is a vital local service which runs via Moorland and St Johns Roads. This service already suffers as a result of the congestion on Moorland Road in particular. The bus often has to mount the pavement to get through and there are times when it simply cannot get through at all. The additional traffic that will be generated by the scheme will only add to the congestion in Moorland and St Johns Road and create even more of a risk that the town bus service will be withdrawn completely. Any humps would simply make matters even worse.

This leads to a question over sustainability. The proposal notes that cycling in this area is difficult due to topography and so no cycle route is proposed. For the same reasons, walking is difficult. With the additional risk to the town bus route caused by this development, this can be seen as an island development which lacks the sustainability criteria that we seek.

So on the basis of the huge existing congestion issues and the likelihood that this application will make matters far worse, I believe that it should be refused."

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Council offices - securing the best solution for Cornwall

I hope that the proposal I have made for Cornwall Council's office strategy is one which gives reassurance to councillors and communities that the authority is truly a council for the whole of Cornwall.

The dilemma was this:

The previous administration took the decision to move most of the staff currently based in various locations around Bodmin into a new building on the Beacon Industrial Park. Although there would be a cost to the new building, it would be a lot more efficient than those it replaced and would also allow the other buildings to be sold off. This scheme was pretty uncontroversial and mirrored what was being done in other towns.

The new administration received a second quote however. This was for a bigger building in Bodmin (almost double the size) and worked out a lot cheaper and more efficient. But it would only be a good plan if we could work out which staff would fill the bits that the current Bodmin staff would not.

Having council staff based in a town is important. Not only do those staff contribute to the local economy, but they give a reassurance that we are not a Truro-centric authority. So I set the aim of maintaining a strong presence in each of the former districts.

But the two options originally on the table for filling the 'Bigger Bodmin' would have seen large numbers of staff moving from either Liskeard or from St Austell. Both of those towns were naturally keen to keep something like the current numbers in situ.

The previous Conservative-led council had laid claim to a 'guarantee' to maintain a certain number of jobs in St Austell, but this was based entirely on a particular planning application being approved. It wasn't and so their words meant nothing.

Now we have come up with another alternative which is likely to see the spare capacity taken up by our partners at BT Cornwall. This should allow us to maintain roughly the same numbers of staff in both St Austell and Liskeard and to make the savings associated with the larger build option in Bodmin. It should also allow us to retain the Higher Trenant building and our significant presence in Wadebridge.

We cannot guarantee exact numbers in each town, or particular buildings, but this should ensure that the current numbers are roughly maintained.

This decision is one for the cabinet and the issue will first be discussed by the Finance and Resources committee who will consider all four possible options. I hope, however, that they back the new deal.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Filming Cornwall's council meetings gets the go ahead

A smaller part of today's Cornwall Council meeting was the formal go ahead being given for unrestricted filming of our proceedings.

Until now, broadcast media had to give the council 48 hours notice of a request to film and stills photography or any recording by the public was forbidden. Live reporting via social media such as Twitter was a grey area. We had, however, enabled webcasting of some meetings and this has proved very popular.

Now we have opened up access to our work. Apart from when meetings go into confidential session (only allowed in limited circumstances), any council meeting will be able to be filmed, recorded, photographed, tweeted or reported in any way that does not interfere with the conduct of the meeting. The only restriction that we make is that we won't allow the filming or photography of members of the public unless those people are speaking at or otherwise participating in the meeting.

I think this is a very positive step. We're running the scheme for 12 months to start with - just to make sure it works as we expect. But we want to make sure that the media and public can engage with us as much as possible.

Andrew Kerr approved as new Cornwall Council chief executive

Andrew Kerr was today approved as the new Cornwall Council Chief Executive. He will take up the post in the New Year.

Although selected by the panel last week, the appointment of a chief exec needs to be approved by the full council. This happened today and Mr Kerr was voted in with one vote against and around a dozen abstentions.

The council also gave its thanks to Paul Masters who has acted as interim chief executive since March and who will continue in the role until Mr Kerr arrives. Paul has seen the council through a massive set of elections, the formation of a new administration and a hugely challenging budget process (although this bit hasn't ended yet). He has used his great skill and experience to make sure all of these happened smoothly. 

6% council tax rise defeated

Cornwall councillors today overwhelmingly defeated a proposal to draft an alternative budget which would see council tax rise by 6%. The proposal would have required a costly referendum and a majority public vote in favour in order to pass.

I have blogged before about why I personally could not support such a proposal. But it was right to have the debate today and to test the water. However, the 79 votes to 33 outcome could not have been much more emphatic.

Some have argued that the budget challenge facing Cornwall means that we should be seeking to raise council tax by a lot. But they seem to ignore the hardship which many people are facing in paying their bills at the moment. I think it is just wrong to expect people to be able to pay an increase that is more than double the current CPI inflation rate.

We were also told today that if we did not vote for a 6% option then we were condemning services such as adult care, rural buses and children's services to cuts. This is a misleading argument. The scale of savings targets facing us means that most of these services would have to suffer cuts even with a 6% council tax rise. Of course a 6% rise would spare a little bit of the pain, but not enough to make the financial hardship it will impose on the many worthwhile in my view. The only honest proposal from those who advocate a path to avoid any cuts is to propose a 19% rise.

The next stage in the budget debate is for the cabinet to consider all the representations that have been made by the public, staff and local organisations on our original proposals. We will then publish our final draft and this will be voted on first by cabinet and then by all 123 councillors on 26th November. Anyone who wants to propose alternatives will be able to do so.

Monday, 21 October 2013

An end to free food for councillors? - UPDATED

One of the discussions taking place at tomorrow's Cornwall Council meeting is over the ending of free food for councillors. It is a proposal being put forward by my Launceston Lib Dem colleague Jade Farrington.

At present, councillors get a free sandwich lunch provided for them on full council days. The value of this was cut earlier this year from about £9.50 per head to about £5. In addition, councillors can sign for food valued at up to £5 per day at County Hall on days other than those when the full council meets. Finally, we can claim back money spent on meals when we are away (out of Cornwall) at meetings on council business.

To my mind, it is only the last of these that employees in the private sector get and the only one that it is reasonable for councillors to get. Everyone else either brings a packed lunch to work or buys a sandwich. They have to pay for it themselves, so why shouldn't Cornwall councillors?

Jade's debate tomorrow won't end the right of councillors to claim for food. Technically, this can only be done by convening an independent remuneration panel - a formal review of councillors' terms and conditions. But this process itself costs money and so Jade is asking the council to agree the principle until such time as the panel next meets. But it is definitely a step in the right direction.

(Declaration of interest: In the past I have signed for food. I don't do so any more.)

UPDATE - The motion was overwhelmingly passed at today's full council.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Planning Application for 8 Tower Street

An application has been submitted for five flats, a shop and office on the site of the ramshackle warehouse at 8 Tower St, Launceston.

This site has previously been the subject of an application for six flats - which was turned down. The applicant then appealed and that appeal was refused.

More recently, pre-application planning advice was sought for a scheme featuring seven flats on the same site and the advice given was that this would probably not be allowed.

So what do you think of this scheme? It will include a shop on the ground floor at the front with an office above it. Behind these would be five flats.

My fear is that such a scheme would be dark and cramped and with little amenity space.

Let me know what you think and, if there are sufficient concerns, I will ask for the application to be considered by the planning committee rather than by officers using delegated powers.

Andrew Kerr proposed as new Cornwall Council Chief Executive

After two days of panels, tests and interviews, Andrew Kerr has been recommended as the new Chief Executive of Cornwall Council.

Andrew is currently Chief Operating Officer at Cardiff Council and was previously Chief Executive at Wiltshire and North Tyneside Councils.

I was one of the nine members of the interview panel and am delighted to be able to appoint Andrew. He was one of a very strong set of candidates and I'm confident will do a really good job with Cornwall Council.

Andrew must be formally approved by the full council when it meets on Tuesday.

Huge credit to Paul Masters who has steered the Cornwall Council ship as interim Chief Executive since the departure of Kevin Lavery. He has done a great job and will continue in the interim role until Andrew joins us.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Dan Rogerson becomes a Minister

Congratulations to my MP Dan Rogerson who has become a minister in today's reshuffle. Dan becomes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (ie a junior minister) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Dan has spent a number of years on the Defra select committee and has a lot of expertise in the area - not surprising given that he has one of the most rural constituencies in the country. We'll see in the next couple of days exactly what his ministerial brief will entail.

Also joining the ministerial ranks today is Cornish Tory MP George Eustice who also becomes a junior minister at the same department.

I'm also glad to see that the loss of Don Foster from the local government department does not mean that there will be no Lib Dem there. Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol, takes over and is a very good appointment.

Friday, 4 October 2013

A visit to the contact centre

This morning I joined my colleague Jeremy Rowe on a visit to the council's contact centre in Camborne. This is the facility that handles most of the calls made to the authority - more than a million every year.

The deliberate decision has been to concentrate on the quality of the outcome of each call rather than speeding through each one as quickly as possible. Over half are still picked up within 5 seconds, but there will be some cases where people have to wit for a while before their call can be answered. But we hope to make sure that the caller gets their problem resolved or question answered during that call rather than being passed from pillar to post or being asked to call back.

We aren't perfect, of course, and the impact of welfare changes has added extra pressure to the staff there, but I believe that this is the right course to take. I know that we are working to ensure that spikes caused by key events like council tax bills are handled more smoothly in the future, but the quality of the service in Cornwall is already far higher than most council call centres.

It means that the call centre staff need to be
very highly trained. People handling council tax enquiries go through six weeks of training and the cross-skills team (ie those who handle general enquiries covering 17 services) receive 12 weeks of training.

I sat in with Gina from the council tax team to listen to some calls. Even within that one discipline, the variety of issues was huge and they were all handled really quickly and with a blur of fingers across the keyboard. It's a tough time for many households and many of the people were calling because they had received a final demand from the council. But I think everybody left having had their issue resolved and certainly feeling that the council was represented by someone who was friendly, professional and courteous.

The contact centre also offers value for money. Even though most calls can be handled by the contact centre staff and so they take longer on average, the cost to the council per call is less than half that of most authorities.

Thanks to Wayne, Sharon and their entire team at Dolcoath for a really interesting visit.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Tory police boss cutting officers but padding his own staff

When they were established last year, it was promised by the Home Secretary that the new Police and Crime Commissioners would be a much cheaper alternative to the old police authorities. It seems that Devon and Cornwall's Tory Police Commissioner Tony Hogg hasn't got the memo.

On top of his £85,000 per year salary (admittedly, set for him, not by him), Mr Hogg ran up a bill of more than a quarter of a million pounds on consultants and agency staff in his first eight months.

He also charges the taxpayer £650 per month for accommodation even though a free alternative is readily available.

Now it seems that his overall staffing bill will be higher than the police authority he has replaced. And not just a little bit bigger. The increase is more than 12%.

Devon and Cornwall Police are cutting more than 500 officers across the region as part of the wider public sector budget squeeze. I think the public would expect that their elected police chief would be concentrating on preserving front-line policing rather than padding his office.

Budget details published

Cornwall Council has just published the details of the budget proposals to save £23.9 million in 2014/15. You can find them on the budget pages of the council website here.

The proposals were discussed by the cabinet and officers over the summer and have since been discussed by portfolio advisory committees of councillors and with staff affected by the proposals. Now that these discussions have concluded we are now able to make the suggestions public.

The public consultation continues for a number of weeks and we welcome views on these proposals - both positive and negative. We are happy to take on board good ideas - either for the coming year or the medium term - and we are willing to make changes if better ideas come forward.