Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Cornwall under-recognised in New Year Honours list

The New Year Honours were announced last night and there are just three names on the list from Cornwall. In comparison, there are 28 from Devon. The three that are there are thoroughly well deserved, but why were the talents and dedication of so many others overlooked?

On the list is Jill Carr, who is HT director for Pendennis shipyards, which has produced one of the best (and most popular) apprenticeship schemes in the country. Her MBE is testament to the company's commitment to educating and training young people.

Two people who receive BEMs are Bob Bulgin, chair of RNLI's Port Isaac branch, and Ken Radford, who established the People and Gardens scheme for those with learning disabilities at Eden Project. Congratulations to both of those too.

Also listed (misleadingly) in the Cornwall section are three who work for the Duchy of Cornwall Estate or personal household of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. But given that all are based up country, I don't see how they are attributed to Cornwall except by a computer search engine. Perhaps they are there to give the appearance of a fairer distribution.

I am sure that the 28 Devon honours are well deserved, and there will be those who say that the honours system is outdated or wrong in principle anyway. But for so long as it exists, there should be a fairer distribution across the whole of the UK. There is more that those of us in Cornwall can be doing by nominating deserving people. But the honours system itself must ensure that there is a fair distribution and that areas of the country are not overlooked.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Greggs forced to change 'Cornish Pasty' name

The Daily Mail (and the Sun I think, but they are behind a paywall) are boo-hooing the dastardly EU because Greggs the bakers are being forced to change the name of the product they have sold until now as a 'Cornish Pasty'.

The trouble is that it isn't. It isn't made in Cornwall and it contains the wrong ingredients - peas and carrots among them. It may be a very nice product, but it ain't a Cornish Pasty.

There is a system called 'Protected Geographical Indication' (or PGI) which is aimed at protecting traditional products from sub-standard competition. Cheddar cheese, Balsamic vinegar and Champagne are all classed in this category. Anyone can produce sparkling wine, but in order to be called champagne it needs to be produced in the traditional manner and in the Rheims area of France.

This is good news for consumers. It means that if you buy a Cornish pasty then you will be buying something made in Cornwall, supporting Cornish jobs and using the traditional ingredients of beef, swede, potato and onion with a bit of seasoning slow cooked from raw in a pastry shell. There are plenty of other pasties out there, containing a wide range of ingredients. Some a pretty good. But they aren't Cornish pasties and cannot be called such.

To be honest, I don't think Greggs are really complaining too much about this. They knew the rules were changing and have been preparing for it. But the right wing tabloids, desperate for any stick with which to beat Europe, have seized on it.

Feel free to pick your own side in this argument. But if you back local jobs and consumer rights, then I'd suggest that the EU is the side to be on.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Special - Police Commissioner refuses to reveal chief exec pay off

It looks like Tory Police Commissioner Tony Hogg is at it again - wasting taxpayers' money on his own office. But this time he is trying to keep his spending a secret.

A month ago the chief executive of the Commissioner's office, Sue Howl, left - officially to 'seek new challenges'. I felt that this reason did not stand up to scrutiny, so I asked for any further details as well as details of any compensation that Ms Howl received for loss of office. In other words, had she received a pay off. If she had, it would indicate that she was pushed rather than jumped as was being claimed.

Lo and behold, on Christmas Eve, I get a reply reiterating the paper thin 'in order to seek new challenges' line. And on the issue of money, a flat refusal claiming that any disclosure would:
'involve the disclosure of personal data concerning Sue Howl, in circumstances where Sue Howl has not given her consent to the disclosure of that information.'
'the information requested is subject to an express duty of non-disclosure and confidentiality owed by the OPCC to Sue Howl, and its disclosure is therefore exempt under the provisions of section 41 FOIA.'
'the information requested is exempt from disclosure under section 43(2) of the FOIA as its disclosure would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the OPCC. The OPCC consider that the potential prejudice to their commercial interests caused by the disclosure of this information outweighs any public interest in the disclosure of that information.'
So, in short, the reason for not disclosing how public money is being spent is that a pay-off for a senior member of staff is commercially confidential.
I don't accept this at all and have appealed the refusal to disclose the information. It seems pretty clear that Ms Howl must have received some sort of pay-off and this seems to indicate that the idea that she chose to leave of her own accord is baloney. After all, if there was no pay-off, why not just say so.

Tony Hogg needs to change his attitude to public money as well as to openness and transparency. If he is spending public money then he needs to account for it.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Vince hints at end to exclusive zero hours contracts

Good news from Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable who has said that he is minded to ban the use of exclusive zero hours contracts. These are the deals which give control to employers and can mean huge uncertainty for workers.

The concept of a zero hours contract isn't automatically bad. It means, in effect, that a staff member is guaranteed work when some is available but the employer does not have to pay them when there is nothing to do.

But the employee still needs to earn a wage and so they should be free to take work from elsewhere if that is offered rather than being tied to one employer only. Vince's announcement today suggests that the government will ban this exclusivity.

Cornwall Council moved in the autumn to review zero hours contracts to ensure that they are always in the mutual interests of both the council and the staff member concerned.

A (slightly) more positive thought about rural funding

I've been thinking a bit more about the extra money that the government has announced for rural councils. It is only about £9.5 million nationwide and Cornwall will receive £462,000 of that.

I said yesterday that I agreed with Andrew George MP that this is chicken feed in comparison with the disparity between funding for rural and urban councils. And I still think that.

But, on a positive note, this may be a recognition by the government that there is a lack of fairness and that they are committed to redressing the balance. If so then I hope that next year comes the cash to take a real step in the direction of fairness.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Uncle Eric's Christmas present

The local government settlement announced today is the usual riddle, wrapped in a mystery surrounded by an enigma. The determination by ministers to make the whole thing as unclear as possible seems to have the motive of allowing them to spin whatever line they like to a media which cannot understand it either.

The basic numbers are largely as we expected, but council staff will have to do weeks of work to be clear about precisely what some aspects mean.

The one thing every council, just like any business or household, needs is clarity. Whilst the government has talked about providing settlement figures into the future, they have made the immediate future far less certain. We don't know whether or not the threshold before a referendum is triggered might change and we don't know if towns or parishes will be subject to the referendum threshold for the first time.

The referendum threshold was introduced to replace capping. Any council proposing a council tax rise above 2% must win the approval of the public in a referendum - a referendum for which Eric Pickles sets the date and the question. Cornwall has set a provisional budget below that 2% figure, but the government is now looking at lowering the figure. This would mean Cornwall choosing either to set a different budget or be forced to hold a costly referendum where the outcome is far from certain.

We took the decision to go early with its budget in order to preserve around £7m of front line services next year. The uncertainty over the referendum threshold and other factors put these services at risk.

A small bit of good news was the recognition by the government of the additional costs of providing services in rural areas. When you add in the fact that urban councils get grants which are 50% per head higher, you get a massive degree of unfairness. But the government's recognition is a mere £9.5 million across the whole of England - and just £462,000 for Cornwall. That's welcome but, as Andrew George MP has said, chicken feed in comparison with what is needed.

I am tempted to think of Mr Pickles as Scrooge. However the Dickens character underwent a conversion as the book progresses. Today's evidence is that there is little chance of Eric Pickles ever doing so.

Instead, he is like the uninvited guest who turns up on your doorstep with a bottle of wine and then proceeds to eat and drink you out of house and home.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Does Theresa May want to restrict the right of Cornish to work in England?

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was all over the media this morning in order to refuse to answer questions about a new immigration proposal which was mysteriously leaked from her own department.

One of the proposals she wouldn't talk about was the idea that migrants from new EU countries could be refused the right to work in the UK until their home country had reached a certain level of wealth. The idea being to restrict the ability to move for economic reasons.

Instead of Mrs May, the boss of think tank Demos, David Goodhart, was put up for interview and he made it clear that the restriction would apply to countries where the GDP per capita was less than 75% of the EU average. (He also made it clear that such a proposal is currently against the law).

Just a thought, but there is one part of the UK which currently has an income level of less than 75% of the EU average - and that is Cornwall. Does Mrs May want to restrict the right of people from Cornwall to look for work in England as a next step? (I assume not)

Perhaps Mrs May ought to concentrate her efforts on ensuring that every part of the UK is at or above the EU wealth average before she starts seeking to impose new restrictions on others. One thing she could do is to argue the case for fairer funding for rural areas, like Cornwall, in the council settlement due to be published on Wednesday.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Lib Dems bring cheaper season tickets across Cornwall

Towns across Cornwall will now have cheaper season tickets in their Cornwall Council owned car parks thanks to the Liberal Democrats.

The measure (as well as cheaper pay and display prices) was contained in the Lib Dem budget that we persuaded the council to adopt back in February. The cheaper prices are based on a very successful trial held in Launceston. Now that the Liberal Democrats are in the administration at County Hall, we have been able to put the cheaper prices into operation.

Cornwall Council sells very few season tickets in most of Cornwall. And even where we had been selling a lot, the number had declined thanks to the policy adopted by the Conservatives of raising prices. In Launceston this had meant prices rose from £195 per year to £470.

As a result, more commuters were parking in residential streets and car parks were empty.

We proved in Launceston that lower charges (we cut the price back to £200) would mean more take up. The council is making about the same amount overall, but commuters are happier and so are residents whose drives are no longer being blocked.

The new prices - which will be available initially for a three month period are:

2013/14 charge
New trial charge
£250 -£470
All Bodmin long stay - £250
Fore Street long stay - £200
All Bude long stay - £350
Crooklets and Summerleaze - £250
Carbis Bay
Dell and Quarry - £350
£320 - £530
All Fowey long stay - £530
Main - £350
Readymoney - £230
£200 - £470
All Helston long stay - £250
Castle Green - £200
£500 - £580 (trial £200)
Walkhouse - £500
Cattle Market, Tower Hill and Duke St - £200
£250 - £500
Cattle Market - £350
Lower Sungirt and Rapsons - £250
Long Rock
Atlantic, Belmont, Dane Rd, Pentire Headland, Towan Hedland, Tregunnel and Trenance - £230
Newquay – Watergate Bay
Watergate Bay - £230
All Penzance long stay - £350
St Erbyns, St Anthonys, and Wherrytown - £250
Port Issac
£250 - £470
All Redruth long stay- £250
West End - £200
St Agnes
St Austell
£400 - £470
Polkyth - £250
West Hill long stay- £200
St Ives
Trebarwith Strand
Garras Wharf - £600
Pydar, Edward, Viaduct and Moresk - £500
Widemouth Bay

Drivers can pay for these tickets by direct debit in monthly installments.

The initial trial is for three months but, regardless of whether the decision is taken to make the prices permanent, all tickets bought during the three month trial will be valid for a full year.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Church Street closure continues

Sadly, the works to Church Street are still continuing this morning. The indication I have had from the gang there is that they may well still be working on site tomorrow.

When permission for these works was sought, the council granted road closure rights for the period 5th December to 11th December only. And so the current road closure is without permission. What makes this all the more calling for local businesses is that there were no workers on site for much of the past two days.

I am chasing up to get the works completed as quickly as possible. It is essential that this is before Late Night Shopping tomorrow at the absolute latest. I am also pressing for fines to be levied on the contractors for closing the roads without permission, as this has an effect on local businesses.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

TRAC - report will be made public

Last night I gave a report to the town council about the failure of the TRAC project which was intended to construct a multi-use trail between Polson and Egloskerry via Newport.

Just for clarification, we have tended to use the name TRAC for the whole project. In fact, it was split into TRAC (to the west of Newport) and CYCLE (to the east of Newport). There were also works in Bude and on Caradon Hill within the TRAC project.

In short, it is now certain that the TRAC/CYCLE project in Launceston will fail to deliver any tangible benefits other than a small piece of work to upgrade the pathway between Newport Industrial Estate and Ridgegrove Hill.

The problems behind this are many and a full report is being prepared by council officers. I will ensure that this report is made public. There appear to have been mistakes at a number of levels over a considerable period of time. Not all of these mistakes were made by Cornwall Council, but the authority cannot escape a good deal of criticism.

I understand that, sometimes, well intentioned projects fail. What concerns me is that the failures in this case went on for so long and that the concerns raised by local councillors and the obvious red flags were neither heeded nor acted upon. Local councillors from across the political spectrum gave their full support to this project right from the start. But we also expressed our concerns when we felt that things were not going as they should have - concerns that were all too often ignored by the previous council.

While most of the people who might be blamed for the failure of this project no longer work for the council, the authority cannot simply pass the blame onto former staff members. I am glad that, in meeting with senior officers, it was clear that there is a willingness to try to understand all the reasons for failure and to learn from those. In particular, I think that there is stronger project management in place, clearer lines of accountability and a more robust 'gateway' process to ensure that only projects with a reasonable chance of success get the go ahead. Unfortunately, none of these are any good to the TRAC/CYCLE project now.

Once the final report has been put together, I have asked that there is a meeting in the town, perhaps under the auspices of the town council but also involving neighbouring parishes, with officers who can answer questions on the report. This is likely to be in the New Year.

I have also raised with officers the need for alternative remedies for some of the significant problems which were to be addressed (at least in part) by the TRAC/CYCLE project. In particular, the need for a safe walking route from Ridgegrove Estate to town.  This remains a very dangerous road for walkers and the problem cannot be allowed to fester for longer.

Launceston's Magic Weekend - starts on Friday

This weekend in Launceston is quite rightly being dubbed 'Magic Weekend' with a huge amount to see and do.

Obviously it is the penultimate shopping weekend before Christmas and therefore time for most people to be finishing off their present buying. (Not me, obviously. I'll be leaving mine til the very last second.)

And so the weekend starts off with Late Night Shopping this Friday. Our special guest is Titan the Robot and I hear that Santa has recruited a very special team of reindeer this year from the Young Farmers.

There will be load of street stalls, music and events happening around the town and don't forget that many of the shops will be showcasing some very special gifts for your friends and family.

Parking in every car park in the town will be free from 4pm (that includes the multi-storey) and many of the roads in the town centre will be closed from about 5pm for the event.

On Saturday there will be a Christmas Market in the Square and Santa will be back again (busy chap).

And don't forget that you can park for free all day in the multi-storey (thanks to the town council for their support) and for just £1 all day in all the Cornwall Council car parks.

Then on Sunday there is the first ever Launceston Santa Run. It's not too late to enter for this (but you cannot enter on the day). But if you don't fancy running, walking or crawling in aid of Children's Hospice South West, then why not come along and give your support to the hundreds who will be taking part.

Don't forget that parking in all the town's car parks is always free on a Sunday.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Autumn Statement - lots of good Lib Dem ideas made real

Today's autumn statement might have been delivered by a Tory Chancellor, but most of the ideas had the roots with the Liberal Democrats*.

So we see:
  • free school meals for key stage one pupils; 
  • 20,000 more apprenticeships over the next two years; 
  • no rise in petrol duty (again). That means a 2p per litre rate rise has been scrapped and petrol prices are now 20p per litre lower than they would have been under Labour;
  • more support for firms to employ younger workers as they will no longer have to pay employers National Insurance contributions for under-21s. That will affect 12,650 under 21s who are currently employed in Cornwall and, hopefully, encourage firms to take on even more;
  • support for town centres with £1000 off business rates for retail outlets with a rateable value of £50,000 or less (ie small shops and cafes) for two years from April;
  • half-price business rates for shops that move into empty town centre units;
  • basic pensions to rise by £2.95 per week thanks to the Lib Dem's triple lock guarantee.

For local councils there was also good news:
  • councils will not have to find extra savings on top of those previously announced (which are severe enough);
  • the New Homes Bonus - a reward for building new homes - will not be top-sliced after all. The proposal had been to hand some of the cash to local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). This returns £330 million to councils that they thought they had lost;
  • the business rates incentives will be fully funded by the government. Half of business rates come to councils and so there was a danger that the otherwise welcome move would hit councils hard. However, we will have to wait for the final council settlement in a couple of weeks to confirm this; UPDATE - Eric Pickles has written to council leaders to confirm that the government will fully fund business rate reliefs.
  • the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap will be raised by £300 million. That means more council housing being built. This money will be distributed via LEPs to replace the new homes bonus cash they lost.
Remembering the pasty tax debacle, we may have to wait a couple of days to see the full fall out of the statement today, but the initial indications are good.

*Not the married couples tax break, obviously.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Launceston Town Council agrees free pre-Christmas parking

Launceston Town Council has agreed to make parking in the town's multi-storey car park free on the last two Saturdays before Christmas. Charges will also be waived after 4pm on the two Fridays before the holidays.

The move was agreed tonight with the aim of giving a boost to the town's shops and businesses in the crucial run up to Christmas. I was very glad to add my vote in favour of this move.

The town council deal goes a stage further than Cornwall Council, which has agreed a £1 charge for all-day parking every Saturday in the run up to Christmas.

The free parking will apply after 4pm on Friday 13th and Friday 20th December and all day on Saturday 14th and Saturday 21st December. Please don't get caught out by seeking to park for free at other times. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Cornwall - Gatwick airlink will continue

Good news this morning as FlyBe have announced that the air route from Newquay to Gatwick will continue - at least until the end of the Summer 2014 season.

Back in May, the airline announced that the route would cease from the end of March. Whilst Cornwall still has the link to Southend (and even faster way of getting to the city of London), the Gatwick link has been seen as important for the visitor trade and for many businesses.

Cornwall Council has been working hard to get the Government to agree that 'public service obligation' status may be appropriate for the Cornwall to London link. This means that the government recognises that it is a vital link which may not be commercially viable and they will support it.

We have won that recognition and the council is currently tendering for a partner airline to provide the service. However, this process is likely to take until the autumn and so there was the possibility that there would be a period without this service. Today's announcement lifts that threat.

Many thanks to FlyBe for their help and huge congratulations to my colleague Adam Paynter and all the officers who have worked so hard to make this happen.