Thursday, 30 January 2014

My challenge for Eric Pickles - 35 ways the government can help councils save

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles is always advising councils that they could save money by taking on board his 50 ways to save. Other groups, notably the Taxpayers Alliance, have produced even longer lists of ways that councils could save money.

But this is a two way street. Councils can, and should, be doing all they can to reduce the amount they spend on administration and bureaucracy. Some of the ideas advocated by Mr Pickles and by the TPA are fairly straightforward. Others are much more controversial. It is for each council (and councillor) to decide which, if any, they might like to take on.

But the government should also be playing its part in cutting bureaucracy and enabling councils to save. Below is a list of 35 simple changes that the government could undertake to make life easier, quicker or cheaper for local authorities. As with Mr Pickles’ own list, some of these ideas are controversial and won’t be supported by everyone. Introducing a tourist tax, for example, is not something that would be undertaken by any council without full consideration of the likely impacts, both positive and negative. It is not something that I am advocating for Cornwall. But it is a freedom that I think local councils should have. My thanks to everyone who has contributed ideas to this list.

So here’s my challenge to Mr Pickles. If you are serious about enabling councils to save money, how many of these changes are you prepared to make to help us?
  1. Further simplify funding from central government, including specific grants, end the Barnett formula and provide a 3 year confirmed rolling settlement to allow accurate financial planning.
  2. Introduce a proper timetable for funding announcements so that grant amounts are clear before authorities start the annual budget process.
  3. Introduce proper payback for money saving initiatives and investments made by councils. If the Council invests money and resource in, say, a scheme to help problem families and so saves the Police lots of money as a result, there has to be a real financial transfer from the Police to the Council.
  4. Reform the Bellwin scheme so that larger councils are not discriminated against.
  5. Loosen the restrictions around councils issuing bonds so that authorities have access to cheaper finance for capital investment.
  6. Change the timing regulations regarding council tax referendums so that they can be held before the bills are sent out.
  7. Even better, abolish council tax referendums altogether so that councils are properly accountable to their local residents.
  8. Lift the restriction on the Council building and/or operating affordable housing in its own right.
  9. Remove the need to set up companies to trade under S95 of Local Government Act – the Council has opportunities to trade and bring in income but having to set up a separate company brings with it a new set of overheads that could be avoided if more freedom on trading was allowed directly by the authority.
  10. Relax regulations around state-aid. State aid issues and having to ensure compliance is adding significant cost to projects.
  11. Give councils more control over council tax discounts, in particular the single person discount. This would allow councils to save money but also to allow authorities to balance the relative needs of different groups, such as the most vulnerable through the localised council tax support scheme.
  12. Simplify procurement legislation – complying with the current procurement legislation that only applies to the Public Sector adds a significant cost to the procurement process.
  13. Review all returns required to be made by councils to central government. These are time consuming and costly. Ministers should have to justify every return required.
  14. Loosen up legislation as to the profit element on some services – eg why should planning be at cost only? Why can’t we make a return on some activities if the market is prepared to pay? Let localism rule where public and the market influence the price.
  15. VAT partial exemption returns are time consuming and costly to calculate and can sometimes create issues when electing to tax on land transactions particularly with voluntary sector. Abolish them and let local councils claim back VAT.
  16. Abolish the tax differences between Health Service and Local Government – with areas like the Better Care Fund this makes no sense and can result in perverse costs dependent on whether the lead is the local authority or a health body.
  17. Follow Scotland & Wales in terms of devolved powers being giving to England local authorities.
  18. Give councils, and their electorate, total tax transparency through the introduction of a local income tax and move away from both council tax and central government grant.
  19. Give councils the freedom to raise or generate revenue e.g. tourism tax, voluntary charge for concessionary fare holders, at their own discretion with accountability to residents through the ballot box.
  20. Abolish restrictions on use of Capital Resources to fund one off costs – authorities should be bound by their own prudence & affordability.
  21. Restrict the amount of bureaucratic statutory returns councils have to complete.
  22. Abolish the requirement to produce statutory accounts compliant with IFRS which are meaningless to the average resident, are not to a true representation of how the council performs against its budget, requires significant resources to produce the accounts, interpret the standards, set the right chart of accounts in the ledger. The WGA return is probably all that central government needs from the Council. Public reporting could then be replaced by a shorter punchier out-turn statement against budget and a summary of the council’s key service performance for the year. Audit work could focus on WGA which should really just be the subjective analysis from the ledger and the reconciliation to the outturn statement.
  23. Change business rate retention rules to allow councils to benefit from all increases in business rates as was originally announced, including inflation.
  24. Provide more freedoms for authorities to use capital receipts to fund service change and/or to generate revenue savings.
  25. Minimise unnecessary top-slices that allow councils to better plan in advance the level of resources they have.
  26. Provide fair funding for rural councils on a par with urban authorities based on a clear set of criteria and transparent funding formula.
  27. Provide full funding for new burdens passed on the local councils and commit to continued funding of those initiatives.
  28. Allow councils to invest NHS monies where pooled with local authorities.
  29. Give councils greater freedom in the use of European Programme money so that they can maximise investment returns.
  30. Relax the number of statutory duties to give councils freedom to negotiate services that suit the local environment and communities.
  31. Remove the ring fence from the Public Health Grant and allow councils to be really innovative in their use of these monies.
  32. Put Unitary Councils in place across England this would save £millions and could be delivered relatively quickly. Joint projects such as those proposed by the Secretary of State mage useful in some cases but will take a long time to come to fruition and cost more and give an ad hoc pattern across the country. Lessons can be learnt from recent round of unitary councils such as Cornwall.
  33. Freedom to raise tolls in line with inflation without having to seek the permission of the Secretary of State and hold a public inquiry.
  34. Remove the requirement for expensive and cumbersome regulations surrounding consultation and advertising of Traffic Regulation Orders. Councils should be free to undertake consultation and publicise proposed changes in the way they think best.
  35. And while you are at it, abolish the requirement to publish expensive adverts in local newspapers which few people read to publicise highways, planning and licensing applications. Why not simply make it a rule that councils should publicise these things in the best way they see fit? 
UPDATE - Ideas 36-38 are listed here.

UPDATE 2 - Apparently it's all a bit complicated for the Leader of the Opposition on Cornwall Council, but these are simply ideas about powers which Cornwall Council (and other authorities) could be given. There is no commitment to actually doing any of them and before most of them happened (particularly any which would impose extra burdens on residents or businesses) there would need to be consultation, a proper debate and democratic vote.

Remembering David Penhaligon

There's a really good project which is looking for funding at the moment. Remembering David Penhaligon is a project, hosted by the Cornish Audio Visual Archive, Cornish Story and the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter, which aims to record the memories of friends and acquaintances of David Penhaligon – MP for Truro from 1974 to 1986.

They aim to build a website which will host the recorded memories, audio or video, of interviews with those that wish to contribute to the project. Many of these interviews will come from his native Cornwall, whether from school friends at Truro School, at Cornwall Technical College, when he was an engineer at Holman Brothers or as the sub-post master at Chacewater.

If you have any memories, get in touch with the people behind the project because they will want to hear from you.

But they also need £5,000 of funding to get the project off the ground. The website explains more, including some of the rewards on offer to those people who pledge money.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

In praise of Cornwall Council finance team

For a council, having high quality officers can make a huge difference. Here is one example from Cornwall.

Back in the summer, we started planning the coming year's budget and the services that we would be able to afford. Our finance team gave us a working estimate for the amount of money we would have and we began planning accordingly. Bear in mind that this amount was around £42 million less than the year before and you begin the realise the scale of the change involved.

We could have waited until the government announced the draft settlement amount in December to take the key decisions. But having an early estimate meant being able to plan in a lot more detail, to consult the public on a scale never seen before and to take measured and considered decisions, not rushed and hasty ones.

So when the government made their announcement, how far out were Cornwall Council's finance team?

Just £12,000.

Considering we have a total budget of £1.2 billion, that means that their error was the equivalent of just 0.001% - a phenomenally close estimate. Many thanks and congratulations to them.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Crowd-sourced democracy

Full marks to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee (@CommonsCLG on twitter) for their recent example of how to use social media to engage a wider audience in the work of our democratic institutions.

The committee had one of their regular sessions with secretary of state Eric Pickles and, presumably with his agreement, they asked the twittersphere for questions they could put to him.

So far, so good.

But, as well as reminding people about the upcoming session (and reminding them again after the original date was postponed because Mr Pickles was ill), the committee went a whole lot further. They tweeted each of the people whose question was asked (me among them) the day afterwards with a link to a YouTube film of the committee session bookmarked at the point that the person's question was asked.

And there's more. Because the questions were split into categories (finance, localism etc) they have also tweeted out a section by section link too. So you can either watch the whole thing or a section that particularly interests you. And there is a storify tale of the event here.

It's not all positive, of course. It still relies on the secretary of state to answer the questions posed. Mine - on the unfairness of funding of rural councils sent Mr Pickles into reminiscences of his chats with Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the former leader of Kent County Council. But evading the question is not the fault of the committee.

Let's hope many more bits of Parliament (and other democratic institutions) take note of what can be done and how to enhance the experience of those of us outside Westminster.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Top chef moving to Launceston

He may not be quite as famous (yet) as Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver or Nathan Outlaw, but a top chef is moving to the Launceston area next month. Anton Piotrowski, the winner of 2012's Masterchef - The Professionals competition is to take over the Springer Spaniel pub at Treburley.

This will be Anton's second pub - he has run the Treby Arms at Sparkwell in Devon for a number of years. I understand that he will be basing himself at the Springer Spaniel from now on.

Anyone who saw Anton's cooking on the TV will know that his style is modern British and his creations are fantastic. I have no doubt he will make the most of the fantastic local produce available in the Launceston area.

The pub will open under new management on February 7th.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

New Western Road crossing

The new pedestrian crossing on Western Road will be installed on the week starting 10th March.

This is good news as the promise had been made for the crossing to be installed during the current financial year.

The aim has been to make it easier and safer for people living on the western side of town - in the St Johns, Chapel and Priory areas - to walk into the town centre. The first crossing - by the railway bridge at Newport - has been rather controversial as a formalised crossing was preferred by most but blocked by the highways engineers.

However, this second crossing - to be sited on the section near the junction with Westgate Street - will be a full controlled crossing.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

What do MEP and Police Commissioner elections have in common?

Mike Smithson has a post on the Political Betting website talking about the pretty far from perfect voting system to be used in the elections to the European Parliament on May 22nd. He says that the lack of a link between an individual vote and a named MEP depresses turnout. I agree, but the most personal elections (for Police and Crime Commissioners) did nothing to boost turnout either.

Mike's point - which is valid - is that the use of the closed regional list system puts the power in the hands of party selection machines rather than voters. A vote will be for a party and the party will be allocated seats on the basis of the proportion of votes won. So if a party wins two seats in a region then the top two on the party list will be elected. And the ordering of names on the party list is done by the party selection machines.

Of course, there are many other electoral systems which put all effective power in the hands of parties - including the way we elect our MPs in safe seats. But in no other elections in the UK are we forced to vote only for the party name. The result, argues Mike, was a turnout of less than 35%.

But the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners has proved that the most candidate-centric election system has done nothing to boost turnout either. In that election, most parties stood a candidate in most areas, but there was a huge push towards independents and candidates without a party label won eleven polls - perhaps boosted by the run-off system in operation. But the turnout was a hugely depressing 14.9% - the lowest ever recorded in a nationwide poll in the UK.

The reason is more complex than merely the electoral system used. With the PCC elections there was the obvious factor of being a new post and there was no wide understanding of what the role entailed or what difference the choice of commissioner would make to the lives of individual voters. With no such understanding or motivation, turnout was always going to be a tough ask.

Perhaps the same is true with the European Parliament. We might all have an opinion on the EU and Europe more widely, but how many people actually know what the European Parliament does and how many can name one of their MEPs? So EU elections come down to sentiment and a broad view about Europe rather than a more complex decision on issues or the relative qualities of the candidates on offer.

It will be interesting to see if any of the parties get more sophisticated than that. Each will know the likely number of MEPs they will elect in each region and they could decide to focus their campaigns on the 'bubble' candidate - the one who may or may not be elected depending on how well the party does.

This may be more of a tactic for the established parties than for UKIP who will be counting on a tide of sentiment rather than their MEPs record in Brussels (given they rarely turn up and have lost almost half their MEPs to defection and expulsion in any case). But it is a tactic and it may allow the Liberal Democrats to hang on to seats that the polls suggest are lost. Of course, it is an incredibly tough ask to scale up the renowned Lib Dem by-election machine (it still exists) from a single constituency to an entire region. But it is possible and may mean that the party out-performs the polls.

All that said, the government really does need to get on with a move to change the voting system. The change that would make most difference would be to adopt the system already in use in Northern Ireland - STV. This gives the ultimate power to voters to choose between candidates of each party, not just between the parties themselves. Every candidate really would be elected on their merits.

However, the more likely change - and one which would also be a huge step in the right direction - would be to keep the current ballot paper but allow electors to vote for an individual candidate for a party, not merely for the party list. The number of MEPs elected for each party would remain based on the overall number of votes for each party, but the candidates elected would be those most popular with the voters, not with the parties. It's called an open list system and operates in almost half the countries in the EU already.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Upper Chapel development - appeal details announced

The proposed development of 100 homes at Upper Chapel in Launceston - which was rejected unanimously by Cornwall Council last year - is now the subject of an appeal by the applicants.

The appeal is likely to be heard in March (a period of four days starting on March 18th is tentatively booked) and will take place in the town hall. Local people will be able to have their say and are encouraged to come along to show their support for the original decision even if they do not want to speak.

I think it is good that the type of appeal taking place is a full public inquiry as it allows the town council and residents to make their case - rather than simply rely on Cornwall Council. That's not to say that Cornwall Council won't also be acting to vigorously defend the decision to reject. Together with Adam Paynter I met with officers today to discuss how the case should be handled.

This evening the town council also discussed the appeal. The decision was taken to employ a planning consultant at a cost of £13,000 to present the best possible case on behalf of the town. This was a tight decision - not because any member of the town council does not want to fight this development as hard as possible. Instead it was more about the sort of case that the council should present - a slick and professional one or the community case which might be slightly rougher edged but would have more genuine passion and would stand out more.

Although all the evidence and submissions that were made surrounding the original decision will be passed to the inspector and consider by him or her, there is still an opportunity for anyone who wants to make written representations to do so. These must be submitted by February 10th in writing (send three copies) to:

R L Wordsworth
The Planning Inspectorate
3/26 Hawk Wing
Temple Quay House
2 The Square
Bristol BS1 6PN

The inspector, when appointed, will make it clear how any oral representations by members of the public can be made.

Tory game playing rejected. Local plan moves forward

Cornwall Council has moved a crucial step closer to a local plan as members voted overwhelmingly today for the proposal made by the cabinet.

A local plan is vital because it provides extra control for local communities about what is built and where. So when Launceston agrees to allow development in our town, we want to be able to steer it to acceptable areas (such as South of the Link Road) and away from unacceptable areas (such as to the West of Upper Chapel).

The debate today was taken up by discussion over the number of new houses that will be built in Cornwall over the next 20 years. The trouble is that this debate is largely out of our hands. The government decrees that any plan must be approved by an inspector and that inspector has been demanding very high housing numbers before the plan gets the sign off. Our colleagues in Wiltshire have seen their plan returned to them as unacceptable. That is why our officers have recommended that any number lower than 47,500 would be impossible to be approved by the inspector.

Having our local plan returned as unacceptable would be the worst possible result. It would mean that we have little local control over development and a developers free-for-all.

So when the Conservative group put forward an amendment to cut the number of new homes to 33,000, we entered the territory of an unacceptable plan. I know there are people who are genuinely in favour of smaller numbers, but Cllr Dick Cole spoke for these when he said that it was impossible to support the 33k proposal as it would simply mean having no plan at all for at least two years.

The Conservative game playing was comprehensively defeated at today's meeting with at least four Tories voting against their own amendment. Credit is due to Scott Mann and Daniel Pugh who were among those who voted against their group and in favour of local community decision making.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Tory candidate welcomes Lib Dem parking charge cuts (but then, he did nothing about the issue when in power)

Scott Mann, the Conservative candidate for North Cornwall, has taken to the press to welcome the Lib Dem cuts to parking charges. Some may see this as very cheeky. I'd prefer to take Scott at face value and welcome his support for our efforts.

Of course, Scott thinks that the council should go further and worries that the new charges may still be too much for someone on minimum wage. Indeed, he says that councils should not be treating parking as 'a cash cow'.

I chuckled a bit at that one.

You see, until last May the Conservatives were in charge of Cornwall Council and didn't do a thing to help motorists - whether on minimum wage or not. Indeed, they had a policy of continually raising parking charges year after year. The Lib Dems campaigned for lower parking charges and were ignored by the Tories. I don't recall hearing a peep from Scott on the subject.

Then in last year's budget amendment, the Lib Dems won our campaign to get parking charge cuts. The Tories did nothing to put this into effect whilst they were still in power but, as soon as the election was over and Lib Dems were in the cabinet, we made sure that our promise was fulfilled and charges have been cut.

I'm sure that the voters of North Cornwall will decide for themselves whether it is better for them to have Scott in a position to make a difference or sitting on the sidelines welcoming Lib Dems fulfilling their promises.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Conservatives playing games over housing numbers

There is a big decision to be made at next week's council meeting about the draft Local Plan for Cornwall. This is the planning strategy for the next 20 years which sets out, among other things, the number of new houses which are to be built in Cornwall in that time.

It's a very contentious issue. Quite rightly, people don't want to see Cornwall being concreted over. But there are very large numbers of people who already live here who need new homes and the way we live today requires more housing than we needed 20 years ago.

There are two numbers being put forward for debate next week. One is for 47,500 new homes over the next 20 years. The other is for 42,500. Both are substantially lower than the old figure under what was known as the regional spatial strategy which called for a number in the mid 60,000's.

The Conservative group is apparently putting forward an alternative for 33,000 homes. That will sound very attractive to those who are worried about the amount of new building. But it is actually a recipe for disaster. Here's why:

The local plan is not something over which Cornwall Council has total control. It also has to be approved by an inspector acting on behalf of the government. That inspector has to judge whether or not the plan meets the minimum standards laid down by ministers. The indications are that they are being very demanding as regards housing numbers. Wiltshire - a very similar authority to Cornwall, recently submitted their plan with housing numbers the equivalent of our 42,500 number. Their plan was rejected.

If a plan is rejected then it is back to the drawing board and a delay of around two years. During that time, there is no local plan. In effect, it is a developers free-for-all with almost no local control over what is built.

That's what the Conservative amendment - which is certain to be rejected by the inspector - will mean - a comparative free-for-all during which local communities will have much less say.

So the bare minimum for councillors next week will be to agree a local plan and housing numbers which are likely to be accepted by the inspector. That may well mean having to accept a number higher than many people would think is ideal. It would probably be more use for Conservative councillors to lobby their colleagues in government for more local control over our affairs (as we did yesterday) than to play games and put forward a number which has no hope of success.

UPDATE: A couple of rather pathetic Tory ex councillors have suggested that the above post somehow indicates that 'Lib Dems want to cover Cornwall in second homes'. Quite clearly it doesn't and we don't.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Meeting the minister

This morning, a delegation from Cornwall Council went to London to speak to local government minister Brandon Lewis. The meeting had been arranged for us by North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson who also joined us. We were lobbying the government for a fairer funding deal for Cornwall and to speak about some of the projects Cornwall is keen to pursue in partnership with the government.

As has often been said, the current funding arrangement for Cornwall is unfair. Like many rural councils, we get less per head than similarly sized urban authorities. And, whilst some predominantly rural areas have big cities within them, Cornwall is almost unique in being uniformly rural across the entire area.

If Cornwall got a grant equivalent to the average per head grant of an urban council, we would have an extra £48 million per year.

We also explained what we were doing regarding planning for the future. In order to make space to hold a proper debate and review of all our services, we set the budget early this year. This had the benefit of saving extra money and preserving around £7 million of front line services for the chop. One cloud on the horizon is a review by the government of the referendum threshold. If they decide to make a change then Cornwall could have to re-visit our budget decision meaning lost time and money.

Overall it was a constructive meeting and the minister engaged with us to talk about the various issues. It was one of a many such meetings that he will have and we won't know the outcome until later in the month. But I believe we got our points across. Even if we don't succeed this time with the funding argument, we had the chance to talk briefly about our desire to control more of our own destiny as a council. We want to have more decisions concerning Cornwall taken in Cornwall and there is a chance to integrate more of the public services - saving money but also making services more accountable. If we can get the government to agree to this sort of pilot then it would be a real breakthrough. The minister invited us to come back to him with definite proposals as soon as we could.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Christmas tree recycling

If you have a (real) christmas tree that you want recycled then Cornwall Council will pick it up over the next two weeks.

Collections will be made as part of the regular rubbish collection schedule, so put your tree out at the same time as your black bag rubbish either next week (ie starting Monday 6th) or the week after (ie starting Monday 13th).

There is one - even better - way of putting your old tree to good use. If you can take it to Porthtowan, then a group there are using old trees to stabilise the dunes.