Wednesday, 26 February 2014

What is the point of Cornwall Conservatives?

Yesterday, Cornwall Council formally agreed its budget for the coming year. The key decisions were taken back in November but the rules state that a vote must also be taken in late January or February each year after the formal local government settlement is announced. Thanks to the superb work of our finance officers, the provisional figures were only £12,000 out - only 0.001% of the overall budget - meaning that we did not have to make time consuming and costly changes to the plans already agreed.

But, once again, there was barely a peep from the council's Conservative group. Despite suggestions that they would come forward with either an alternative budget or an amendment, nothing appeared. And, whilst the majority of the group voted against the plans on offer, they had nothing to say about what they would do differently.

Tory group leader Fiona Ferguson continued her bizarre campaign against bringing new jobs to Bodmin and lowering the council's administration costs. But she had nothing to say about services or even about council tax.

I have always thought that it was wrong to vote against a budget if I had not put forward an alternative. Four Tory councillors clearly had a similar outlook as they voted for the proposals given their own group's lack of direction.

So if the Conservatives in Cornwall have nothing to offer as an alternative to the Liberal Democrat and independent administration, what is the point of them at all?

Monday, 24 February 2014

Lib Dems bring half hour free parking to every Cornwall Council car park

Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council are continuing our series of parking offers with a new scheme offering free parking for half an hour in all Council run car parks. The offer, which begins on 1 March and runs until 20 April, has been developed in response to calls from many local businesses to allow people to make a flying visit to their local town centre.

This is the third major parking offer provided since the Liberal Democrats became part of the administration of the council back in May. It comes on the back of the budget put forward by our group last February promising cheaper parking - which was opposed by the Conservatives.

We want car parks to contribute to the competitive environment of our town centres, and the Council should manage the car parks to support local businesses.

Anyone wanting to take advantage of the offer will need to use the RingGo mobile phone payment service to register their free half hour. This is because it would be too costly to change all the legal notices for the trial.

Although this system is very easy to use, first time users will be required to provide some initial information and so they may find it easier to register online at www.ringgo.co.uk

There will be no cost for the first half hour of parking or for using RingGo, but anyone who wants to have a text message sent to them to remind them of when the parking session is over or if they want to extend the parking session, will be charged for that message and any additional parking.

The free half hour parking is the latest in a series of car parking trials which are currently being implemented by the Council.

We have also seen cheaper season tickets rolled out in 45 towns and villages across Cornwall following the success of the trial scheme in Launceston.

We also saw cheaper pay and display charging trials in many towns including a £1 all day offer in the run up to Christmas in Launceston. Both Jade Farrington and I are currently campaigning for the trial to be extended to every Saturday as it was such a boost to town centre shops in December.

Cornwall Council cannot afford to make car parks free all day, every day. But under the influence of the Liberal Democrats, we are determined to bring parking charges down and to make sure they complement, not destroy town centres.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Town Council report - a sense of priorities

This evening's town council saw the start of the nomination process for next year's mayor and deputy mayor. I was delighted to be able to second the re-election of Dave Gordon to be mayor for a second year and Brian Hogan to be deputy.

I think both have done a great job - representing the town with honour and coming up with fresh ideas to take us forward. Both have been ably supported by their partners acting as Mayoress and Deputy Mayoress. I have heard every mayor I have known say that they could not have done the job without the support of their partner and I can understand it.

The town council was asked today to formally recognise the role of the Mayoress and Deputy Mayoress and I supported the bulk of this proposal. However, whilst recognition is long overdue, I could not back the proposal to spend over £500 on a new chain of office for the Deputy Mayoress. I think that in hard economic times there are more urgent and important uses for council taxpayers' money. However the proposal was supported by the majority of councillors and the money will be spent.

Later this evening, the town council considered burial fess and charges in its role as the burial authority. The proposal was put that charges should rise by £25 across the board because the council needs all the money it can get to provide services and the current income from the cemetery (about £4,325) is nowhere close the the amount spent on it (around £29,000). That's a rise of more than four times the rate of inflation. I opposed this rise because I think times are hard for many people in town and the last thing we need to do is increase the cost of dying. However the proposal to raise charges was supported by the majority of councillors.

It would be a too simplistic to link the two. The council did not raise burial fees in order to fund the new chain of office. But finances are tight - for the town council as for individuals and families. We need to be careful to present the best possible value for money for taxpayers. Overall, I think the town council does a good job, but tonight I felt that we made two wrong decisions.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Distributing sandbags

I was out this lunchtime in Looe to help hand out sandbags to home and business owners worried about the impending bad weather and the possible flooding that may occur.

Looe was one of four locations where Cornwall Council was making 1000 sandbags available - the others were Penzance, Helston and Bude. These locations were picked by council officers working with the Environment Agency and other partners based on the weather forecasts and potential for flooding.

I was working alongside three Police officers, just one of the many agencies who have come together to work for Cornwall. We had a steady stream of people wanting sandbags for the first hour or so as well as a number of TV and radio people. I did a number of interviews to explain that the council was now able to provide sandbags thanks to the government agreeing to reimburse us for the costs.

The council is working as hard as it can to produce sandbags and the four thousand produced to date will be added to over the coming days according to need.

The other new development is that the military is helping out the relief efforts in Cornwall with around three dozen personnel from Culdrose distributing sandbags.


Plans to convert the Bridewell into flats

A planning application has been received to change the the current use of the Bridewell, on the junction of Dockacre Road and Kensey Hill, from a shop and restaurant into four single bedroom flats.

The current use of the building is La Bouche Creole restaurant and Just So fabrics and furnishings. There are also two flats above.

If you want to comment on this application, use the reference number PA14/00588 here.

Cornwall Council to provide free sandbags

Cornwall Council will issue free sandbags to households who are affected or at risk of flooding from this morning. The process of filling and distributing the bags will take some time, but the council will be using all of its resources and those of partner agencies to make sure that sandbags and flood prevention advice is available to any household at risk as soon as possible.

Together with my Lib Dem colleague Geoff Brown, the cabinet member for homes and communities, and colleagues from the Environment Agency and Cormac, I met with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday evening to discuss the flooding in Cornwall and how the rebuilding and repair work would happen. Nick also passed his thanks on to all the frontline teams at the EA, council and Cormac who have done so much to cope with the floods and the effects on local communities.

We also discussed the continued flood threat. Nick was able to assure us that the government would reimburse the council for money spent on sandbags. We are grateful for that assurance after some considerable uncertainty.

The previous policy of the council, agreed by the Conservative administration, was that the council would not provide sandbags, free or otherwise. It advised residents to purchase them for domestic use. Until now, this policy has been adhered to and, contrary to reports, the council has not sold sandbags to any residents. It is good that we can now reverse the no sandbags policy and start to help householders to do more to protect their property.


Thursday, 13 February 2014

Government confirms revisions to 'Bellwin' scheme for Cornwall

We've now had through the details of the revised Bellwin scheme as it affects Cornwall. This is the system whereby the government repays councils for money spent on emergency flood relief. It does not provide money for longer term repairs and rebuilding.

So far, Cornwall has spent almost £4 million on emergency flood relief. And we estimate that the cost of proper repairs to our assets will be at least £17 million.

Under the old regime, Cornwall was penalised for being a big council. We could claim 85% of the cost above a threshold based on our total budget. In Cornwall's case this was £1.4 million whereas for most district councils it was in the tens of thousands of pounds.

Now the government has changed the scheme to give 100% repayment on a much lower threshold - so Cornwall Council only has to pay the first £877,081. That's a great boost. So too is the extended deadline for submitting claims.

Tonight I met with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to discuss the costs of putting right flood damage in Cornwall. The council cannot afford the £17 million or more (and it will be more as we have not yet been able to properly assess everything damaged) that it will cost. We need some help from the government. I made this point to Nick and I hope that the government will be able to help with long term repairs as they have with short term relief work.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Fee rises will mean bailiff costs will exceed debts

Without much publicity, Tory minister Eric Pickles has announced that the fees that bailiffs will charge for collecting debts owed to local councils are to rise massively. It is likely that bailiff fees will start to exceed the average debt that is being collected.

Bailiffs are only ever used as a last resort by councils. Before it reaches that stage, someone will have received two reminders and will have been summonsed to court to have a liability order issued. Cornwall Council is always keen to reach a repayment schedule with anyone who owes us money and to avoid the court and bailiff system wherever possible. Even where a liability order is granted, bailiffs will still only be a last resort with options such as attachment to earnings being preferable.

At the moment, bailiffs are not able to levy a fee for making first contact (usually by letter) with a debtor. The charge for a first personal visit is £24.50 and for a second visit is £18. These charges are added onto the debt that is owed and are collected first. Should a bailiff remove goods for sale, then they can charge 'reasonable costs' - averaging £110 or so.

Under the new charging regime which comes into force on April 6th, the first stage will be a 'notice of enforcement' costing £75. An enforcement visit will be charged at £235 and the removal of goods stage charge will be formalised at £110.

So the average cost - before any goods are removed - will be £310, compared with around £24.50 now. Considering that the average debt to Cornwall Council that is enforced by bailiffs is a bit less than £300, it is easy to see that debts will be more than doubled by bailiff fees.

These charges are nationally agreed and not decided upon by Cornwall Council. I know the authority will look at any options that are open to us, and we will continue to use bailiffs only as a last resort, but we cannot afford to decide not to follow up on debts that are owed without putting vital frontline services at risk.

Dan Rogerson launches campaign to extend rail services to North Cornwall

After the failure of the main rail line at Dawlish, the government have committed to both repairing that line and looking at how to make rails services in Devon and Cornwall more resilient into the future. One option is to re-open the route from Exeter via Okehampton and Tavistock to Plymouth.

North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson is asking the government to consider also extending the rail line into North Cornwall.

At the moment, there isn't a single yard of rail line in North Cornwall served by national rail services.

Cornwall Council is taking the lead in re-opening the line from Bodmin Parkway (which is actually in South East Cornwall) through to Bodmin Town. That will be a small but significant benefit to the town.

But what North Cornwall really needs is a proper rail service such as that which existed before 1967 and the Beeching cuts. It would be a huge boost for our visitor industry as well as local businesses and the many residents who cannot afford cars.

If you support Dan's campaign, sign the petition here.

"Money no object," says Cameron. Really? Prove it.

A few days ago I blogged in praise of the government's response to the floods. And that is still generally the case. But one thing is hampering efforts at repairs - money.

In Cornwall, David Cameron said the government would "pick up the tab - 100%". And now he is reported as saying that "money is no object" in relief efforts.

But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has cautioned that there can be "no blank cheque".

This difference is crucial.

The bill for Cornwall Council is already over £21 million and that is split into two sections - around £4 million on immediate relief and around £17 million on longer term repairs. The immediate relief aspect is covered by a scheme known as the Bellwin Scheme. Above a threshold, councils are reimbursed for everything they spend. The government has changed this somewhat so that councils will get back more of the money they spend. But any money we might get for the long term repairs is still mired in uncertainty. Despite what the PM has said, we don't know how much, if any, we will get back or when. And if we do get something, will this be new money or will we lose it from some other budget somewhere down the line?

This matters because the uncertainty is holding up the repairs. Cornwall cannot really afford to spend £21 million or more in the next few months if we don't know that we will get it back. It would wipe out the bulk of our reserves and make us vulnerable to any future unforeseen circumstances.

So the council has written to the Prime Minister asking for urgent clarification. We need to know the details of the revised Bellwin scheme as well as a firm commitment to the amount of the long term repair bill that the government will give us back.

UPDATE - At Prime Minister's Questions today, Mr Cameron said that businesses affected by the flooding would get full business rates relief.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Where's Sheryll?

South East Cornwall Tory MP Sheryll Murray was in all the photos during the visit by Prime Minister David Cameron to the village of Kingsand this afternoon. She managed to spare the time from her busy campaign trying to win votes for her cat to step out in front of the nation's media.

Sheryll was keen not to share any limelight with local councillor George Trubody. George has been a complete star throughout the flooding crisis, virtually living in Kingsand and helping out his constituents at every turn. But Sheryll sought to exclude him from the PM's visit. It was only when residents said that they would refuse to meet the PM if George wasn't there that Murray was forced to relent.

This evening, there was a second meeting in the village. George had brought together every single agency the could be involved in repairing and rebuilding Kingsand. The council was well represented, as were Cormac, the Environment Agency, local parish council, the local institute and residents. In fact, the only person missing was local MP Sheryll Murray. Back on the campaign trail?

Government will pick up the tab for Cornwall's flood damage (or maybe not - see update)

Whilst local government minister Eric Pickles and Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, have been bickering across all the airwaves, other parts of the government have been getting on with the job of trying to put things right.

Junior Environment ministers Dan Rogerson and George Eustice (both Cornish MPs) have been doing loads of work behind the scenes whilst Mr Pickles hogs the airwaves. And this evening the Prime Minister has been in Cornwall where he promised that the government would pick up the tab "100%" to repair Cornwall's flood ravaged communities.

UPDATE - Maybe not. It appears that the WMN report may be a little on the hopeful side. Although pressed on the matter by Cornwall's Chief Exec and Leader, Mr Cameron refused to agree to underwrite the repair costs. Laurence Reed of BBC Radio Cornwall has an interview which will run on the station tomorrow morning.

The current bill is over £21 million and is made up as follows:

Portreath Harbour where there has been severe damage to the pier. 
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs – current estimated costs £51k
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £800k
Impact
•        Potential coastal flooding to 40 properties
•        Economic impact on 5 fishing boats

St Ives where two piers have been damaged.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £22k
•        Permanent repairs - current estimated costs £22k
Impact
•        Minor repairs to be implemented within two weeks

Newlyn to Marazion where damage includes a breach of coastal defences at Eastern Green and Long Rock threatening the Paddington/Penzance railway line, residential and commercial property, South West Coastal Path; damage to South Quay, Penzance, threatening the link to the Isles of Scilly and damage also to Penzance promenade, Jubilee Pool, Newlyn Green.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £0.685m
•        Permanent repairs -current estimated costs £5.6m
Impact
•        Major damage to coastal defences threatening the Penzance/Paddington railway line, residential and commercial properties and the South West Coastal Path
•        Interim repairs completed by 31 January 2014

Porthleven (privately owned harbour) where there has been damage to coastal defences, with up to 40 properties at risk from coastal flooding, a breach of the river defences and significant damage to the fishing fleet.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs to coastal and river defences - current estimated costs £105k
•        Capital repairs to harbour (privately owned) to be estimated
Impact
•        Impact on tourism economy
•        Economic damage to fishing fleet

Newquay Fistral  -where there has been damage to coastal defences and undermining of the Fistral Surf Centre; the removal of sand led to undermining of the Fistral RNLI training base and damage to the sand dunes led to damage to several accesses to the beach.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £15k
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £500k
Impact
•        Potential impact on the multiple businesses in Fistral Surf Centre
•        Concerns over the structural integrity of the RNLI training centre
•        Some access structures - severely damaged

Mullion Harbour  - (National Trust  Property) where there has been structural damage to Eastern Breakwater.
Cost of damage
•        Estimate awaited from National Trust
Impact
•        Collapse of breakwater would threaten up to 6 residential properties

Newquay Towan and Harbour where there has been damage to the road access to Blue Reef Aquarium, damage to the Towan Promenade and beach huts and damage to harbour assets and harbour masters office.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £22k
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £335k
Impact
•        Risk to service supplies and access to the Aquarium
•        Damage to harbour assets impeding commercial uses

St Mawes  where there has been damage to highway, damage to coastal defences at Summers Beach and damage to privately owned quay.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £108k
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £12k
•        Estimates for damage to private pier being prepared
Impact
•        Significant damage to road and commercial premises
•        Significant damage to private owned pier and harbour master office

Bude  where interim repairs to Bude Canal and coastal defences have now been completed.
•        Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £59k
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £130k
•        Further damage to be estimated

Calstock where the failure of a highway wall resulted in the collapse of the road.
Cost of damage
•        Initial response - current estimated costs £0.1m
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £0.5m
Impact
•        No vehicular access to 43 properties and 1 business
•        40 trapped cars retrieved by military

Looe where there has been damage to harbour assets and to the coastal defences at Hannafore.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs       - current estimated costs  £80k
•        Capital repairs - CC - current estimated costs - £20k
•        Looe Harbour Commissioners are preparing estimates
Impact
•        Need for major scheme to give long term protection from coastal inundation
•        Need for marketing campaign to ensure message that ‘Cornwall is open’

Kingsand / Cawsand where there has been significant damage to coastal defences and residential properties and to the structural integrity of the institute and the clock tower.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £20k
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £585k
Impact
•        Very high national media focus - threat to tourism and the local economy

Seaton  where there has been significant damage to beach profile and local businesses and the loss of wall at the rear of the beach.
Cost of damage
•        Interim repairs - current estimated costs £70
•        Capital repairs - current estimated costs £575k
Impact
•        Requires design and installation of new coastal defences


Friday, 7 February 2014

Cornwall's storm costs top £21 million

The latest estimate for the cost of the storms in Cornwall is more than £21 million.

This is made up of £3.8 million for immediate response and making safe and £17.5 million for full repairs and remediation. But these are still preliminary estimates and are continuing to rise. In all probability they will rise again this weekend as yet more bad weather is forecast.

But in better news, council leader John Pollard had a very positive meeting with the Transport Secretary this afternoon at which the government support for the extra flights I blogged about earlier was confirmed as was a 25% cut in the price of walk-up fares (ie not advance tickets) on train journeys through the affected area. First Great Western are running buses between Plymouth and Taunton which will add 60-80 minutes to journey times.



Cornwall Tories Falling Out! (part 94)

You can't go five minutes without Cornwall's Conservatives falling out with each other.

Two days ago Tory group leader Fiona Ferguson appeared to tell a council committee that she backed a plan to move all council staff out of St Austell and over to Bodmin - directly contradicting a campaign supported by local Tory candidate Steve Double to keep staff in St Austell. (For the record, the council has already committed to maintaining staff levels in St Austell.)

Now she is saying that the deal to finally end the saga of council money being tied up in failed Icelandic banks may not be good news. But her deputy, Scott Mann, seems to take a different view. "An excellent result" was what he said to fellow councillors.

Of course, any loss of money is bad news. But it is a relief to finally end the Icelandic entanglement and the deal that was struck - which returns around 93% of the money invested - is a fair one. To hang on in the hope of getting more - as Cllr Ferguson wants - would mean waiting years longer and the chances of getting all our money back were slim. For one thing, we would have been likely to have been paid in Icelandic kroner, a currency which has slipped in recent years.

Extra flights to keep Cornwall connected

Good to see that Cornwall Council has been quick off the mark and has been working with FlyBe over the past few days to secure extra flights to London to help during the rail disruption caused by the track being washed away at Dawlish.

Many thanks also to the Government and to Gatwick Airport for enabling the extra landing slots to be found and to Stephen Gilbert MP whose help has been invaluable in the process.

FlyBe have guaranteed that the three extra flights each day will be priced at the same levels as their regular service and the aim is to keep Cornwall connected rather than profiteering.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Launceston Food and Drink Festival wants you

As part of this year's Charles Causley Festival there will be a food and drink event in the town square on Saturday 14th June from 10am until 10pm. And organisers are on the look out for stalls and sellers.

One part of the day will be a beer festival, repeating the excellent event organised last summer by Joe and his team from Penpont Brewery. But if you are a food or drink producer and want to get involved, you can take part too.

There will be seating in the square and lots of entertainment. So the organisers are especially keen to get anyone who would be interested in selling street food or organising a pop-up restaurant for the day.

Contact my colleague Jade Farrington - Jade.Farrington@gmail.com - if you want to know more.

Government considering rail services to Okehampton following Dawlish collapse

Local MP Dan Rogerson has welcomed today's decision to conduct a comprehensive review into rail links between Cornwall, Devon and London which will look at re-introducing train services to Okehampton and Tavistock.

Following the collapse of the sea wall at Dawlish this week, the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, announced that the Government are working to restore and protect the main line at Dawlish as soon as possible.

At the same time he said that the Government will conduct a "rigourous review" of other options for linking the Great Western rail line south of Exeter and into Cornwall.

Trains last ran on the line between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock in 1968. Regular services between Okehampton and Exeter continued until 1972, with trains only running now on Sundays in summer.

North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson has campaigned to re-introduce more services to and from Okehampton to bring services close to the Launceston and Bude areas, and to examine the case for re-opening branch lines to Bude and to communities along the north coast to Padstow.

During a Parliamentary debate on railways in North Cornwall in June 2013, Mr Rogerson asked Transport Ministers to consider more services to Okehampton to benefit communities in east Cornwall and to help "if there were problems with the line further south in Devon".

Dan Rogerson commented:

"The priority for the Department for Transport is, rightly, to repair the damage at Dawlish to re-open and protect the existing main line from Penzance to London Paddington.

"However, I welcome the Government's decision to look at all the possible options for improving and protecting railway services to and from Cornwall. Restoring services between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock would help with capacity, help to bring services closer to Launceston and Bude, and help to keep Cornwall connected if there were problems with the line at Dawlish.

"The discussions should also examine the case for bringing any new line across into North Cornwall to ensure maximum resilience and to provide more options for Cornish residents and businesses."

Cornwall Council announces management shake-up

Cornwall Council is proposing a radical shake up of its management structure as part of plans re-shape the authority to deliver services in different ways in the future. Under the changes the current structure of six directorates will be reduced to three covering:
  • Economy and the environment
  • Localism, business management, organisational development, community safety and protection
  • Education, social care and health
The restructuring is supported by the Council’s Cabinet and will see the number of corporate directors reduced from six to three, delivering initial savings of around £400,000. Once the new corporate directors have been appointed the shape and structure of all the services within the new directorates will be reviewed. This will deliver further management savings which will help protect frontline services.

“We need to re-shape the Council to better suit the way we will deliver services in the future. This top level restructure is the first part of that process,” said Andrew Kerr, the new chief executive. “We are also faced with the huge challenge of having to reduce our spending by £190m over the next four years. Streamlining the organisation is one way of reducing our costs although a management restructure will not in itself deliver all the savings we need.”

Following his appointment in January Mr Kerr has worked closely with the cabinet to identify key drivers for change the Council over the next four years. Details of the re organisation were outlined to Members and staff today. Formal consultation will now take place with the affected staff before the start of the appointment process.



Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Lib Dems to vote on Cornish devolution

Liberal Democrats will vote at our spring conference in March on a new policy paper bringing together a range of commitments to electoral and constitutional reform. Among the commitments will be one to bring proper devolution to Cornwall.

Until now, those in favour of devolution have tended to seek the perfect solution that suits every area. So debates about what is right in, say, Hertfordshire have tended to be to the detriment of Cornwall where our aims and case is settled and well stated.

Instead, the Lib Dems will be looking to what is known as 'asymmetric devolution'. In other words, devolving powers to one area at a time when that area is ready to make the case to central government for a transfer of powers. Cornwall would clearly be at the forefront of such moves and is specifically mentioned in the proposed policy as an area that would lead the way.

Devolution is not in the coalition agreement, so there is no chance of it being introduced by the current government. But I hope that Lib Dems will be able to push for it as part of any discussions after the general election next year. What is certain is that it is only likely to happen if we have enough support and enough MPs to make the case.

Pickles backs down on threat to lower council tax referendum threshold

Local government minister Eric Pickles has been forced to back down from his plans to cut the threshold for council tax referendums. The figure will remain at 2% meaning that the Cornwall Council budget set in November can now be confirmed.

Two years ago, the government abolished the cap on council tax rises and replaced it with a referendum threshold. Any main council wanting to raise council tax by more than the threshold had to hold a binding referendum. The trouble is that the referendum has to take place in May, some two months after the start of the new financial year. It's all a bit of a mess and makes a mockery of Pickles' claim that this introduces more accountability and democracy.

Here in Cornwall we conducted the largest ever public consultation on our budget and got broad support for our plans to raise council tax by just under 2%. The uncertainty of a referendum after spending has started means that we cannot really take the risk of a no vote.

This year Pickles announced that he wanted to lower the threshold and the figure of 1.5% was mentioned. Everyone can take a view as to whether this is a good move or bad in principle, but keeping everyone hanging on until the last minute was fundamentally wrong. Councils, like businesses, need to be able to plan in advance. In Cornwall we set our budget in November in order to conduct a wider debate about the future shape of the council and because it enabled us to save £7 million more than a later budget would have. So a change to the threshold would have forced Cornwall to revisit its budget at great expense to services and confusion among staff, members and the public.

Thankfully, an alliance of Nick Clegg and Theresa May seems to have forced Pickles to abandon these plans. He has also confirmed that he will not be seeking to impose a referendum threshold on town and parish councils - a move which have thrown into disarray the current work to devolve many local services to towns and parishes that want to take them on.

Cornwall's £14 million floods bill

The latest estimate for the cost of the flooding and bad weather in Cornwall is around £14 million. But that amount is likely to rise further as bad weather is going to be with us for the next few days at least.

The £14m figure is made up of £4 million for the immediate response to the flooding and £10 million for the long term repair work - mainly rebuilding walls and repairing roads. The good news is that Cornwall has qualified for 'Bellwin scheme' funding for our response work. This means we can claim 85% of the amount we have spent over the trigger amount of £1.4 million. But this doesn't touch the £10 million structural repair bill.

At PMQs today, the Prime Minister responded to a question from Cornish Lib Dem MP Andrew George to promise reform of the Bellwin scheme so that large unitary councils like Cornwall will not lose out. That's great news and we look forward to getting more details.

(UPDATE: The government has announced that they are changing the Bellwin scheme to pay 100% of the amount above the qualifying threshold as well as lowering the threshold itself.) 

We've also heard today that the Prime Minister is pledging £100 million for flood relief nationwide. That sounds like a huge amount, but we don't know the details and is likely to be only a proportion of the final UK bill. But he also said that there would be no limit to help on offer. So we will take him at his word and trust that the Government will help Cornwall out to make sure that all the necessary repairs can be done.

The next step needs to be a meeting with the relevant ministers - probably local government minister Brandon Lewis and environment minister (our own) Dan Rogerson - to get the details of the help on offer and to make the formal request for assistance. We won't know Cornwall's final bill for a while, but the sooner we can start the detailed discussions, the better. Through my informal conversations with both ministers already, I know they are keen to help.

But there are wider problems that affect Cornwall. The huge damage to the rail line at Dawlish will effectively cut off one of Cornwall's primary links to the rest of the UK. Reports as to the time it will take to put right vary from 6 weeks to 6 months. Of course we need to get the line repaired as soon as possible, but we also need a plan for the future where Cornwall's rail link is not put at risk every time there is bad weather. I don't know whether that solution will be via Dawlish or some new route, but it is important that the government recognises the need for a long term solution and local MPs are having a meeting with the Transport minister this evening.

UPDATE - really pleased that both the Transport Secretary and Network Rail have promised to look into alternative routes and that the company is putting 'heavy muscle' into repairing the Dawlish section in the meantime. Many thanks to Devon and Cornwall MPs from all parties for working together on this.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Cornwall Council recovers money invested in failed Icelandic banks

Cornwall Council has sold its claims against the insolvent estate of Landsbanki. This means that the authority has now recovered 93% of the £9m that was originally deposited with Landsbanki in 2008 by the former Restormel and County councils and is no longer a creditor of the bank.

The claims were sold through a competitive auction process.  The price at which the claims were sold was based on a reserve price set by the Cabinet on the basis of legal advice received from Bevan Brittan, the solicitors commissioned by the LGA to work on behalf of all local authorities to lodge a claim on the estate, and financial advice procured by the Local Government Association, independent treasury advisors and its own professional analysis of the financial position.

The proceeds of the sale were paid in cash in Pounds Sterling and these funds have already been received by Cornwall Council. As a result the Council has recovered the majority of its Landsbanki deposits in pounds sterling now rather than run the risk of receiving funds over an unknown number of years into the future with the added uncertainty around exchange rates. A large number of other councils which had invested in failed Icelandic banks took the same route and all those authorities have received the same basic settlement rate as Cornwall Council did.

I am delighted that Cornwall Council has been able to resolve our Icelandic investments. The Cabinet took the view that being able to resolve the matter now was worth the small discount on the total amount of the original investment. Had we ignored this opportunity then we would probably have had to wait for a number of years and run the risk of receiving our investment back in a range of currencies meaning that we still would not have been able to recover the full sterling amount.

The Cabinet agreed a reserve price which has been met and which we feel provides good value for money for the Council and our taxpayers. I am very grateful to our own finance team and to our independent advisors and the LGA and Bevan Brittan for all their help.

Pickles wants to see council budget votes recorded

Local government minister Eric Pickles has today announced plans to require councils to record how each councillor votes when council tax and budget issues are being decided. He says he wants councils to be more like parliament in this regard.

I've got no problem with this idea. I think councils should be as transparent as possible and councillors should always be accountable for the decisions they take in the name of the public.

The only thing I would say is that the process of recording how each councillor votes takes time and thought should be had before a decision to automatically roll it out to every single vote taken.

At present, Cornwall Council's normal way of taking a vote is by show of hands. If it is clear which way the decision has gone then this is announced and no count taken. If it is close (in the opinion of the chair) then there will be a count and the numbers announced. However, councillors can also demand a decision is taken by named vote and this will take place if more than a third support the demand. It is also possible to take a secret ballot. In my experience this last option is only ever done when choosing chairs of committees. In theory, it might also be tried for other votes - something I would find troubling. In reality, named votes are already held for contentious political issues and the budget is usually one such. Each vote takes about ten minutes as the monitoring officer reads out each councillor's name and they respond with their vote. There is then a period to add up the results and this is announced and recorded in the minutes.

The only reason why I would not want to see this rolled out to every vote is that there are usually between ten and twenty votes in a full council meeting. If a named vote had to be held each time, it would add around two hours to every meeting. If such a requirement were made then I'm guessing Cornwall would have to invest in some form of electronic voting machines - at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. Do-able, but not necessarily the best use of limited monies.

So it's fine if Pickles wants to require named votes on budget and council tax issues, but he should think twice before going further.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Cornish (Gateway) Services



A couple of people have commented to me about the apparent proposal to call the new service station just outside Victoria on the A30 "Cornish Gateway Services".

The problem is that the word gateway implies the entrance to Cornwall. So it would be fine as the name for facilities at Saltash, Launceston or Bude, but seems inappropriate when used in a location as close to the geographic centre of Cornwall as it is possible to be.

The fear of some in East Cornwall is that it gives the impression that the parts of Cornwall that the visitor has already travelled through don't really count as 'proper' Cornwall.

So I wrote to the company in charge of the new development asking them to change to a more appropriate name. They have come back to me to say that they will be using the name "Cornwall Services". It may still not be perfect, but it's a great step forward and I'm grateful to them. I've asked them whether it would be possible for them to talk to the Cornish Language Partnership about an even better name.

More ideas for my Eric Pickles challenge

Last Thursday I blogged with a challenge for local government minister Eric Pickles. He is always banging on about ideas that councils could adopt to save money. Some of these are good, some are less so.

I came up with 35 things that the government could do in order to help councils save money. These are simple rules changes that the government could make but which would save local taxpayers thousands or enable councils to bring in more income.

I've had a very good and positive response so far - many thanks to everyone for their feedback. Now I've got a few more ideas to add to the list and would welcome yet more:

36. Allow councils freedom to levy a premium level of council tax on second homes. Although the government has abolished the requirement to give a discount to second home owners (for which we are grateful), we are still not allowed to charge a premium to reflect the fact that second homes often deny housing to local families.

37. Create a planning use class for second and holiday homes. At the moment, there is no control over family homes which are converted to use as second homes or sold to a new owner who will not use the house as a main family residence. This can lead to many communities becoming second home only zones and the consequent loss of local facilities like schools, post offices, pubs and shops. Creating a separate use class means councils would have the power to require change of use planning permission which would help to protect vulnerable communities.

38. Allow local authorities more power to decide how many elected councillors are needed in their area. The precise boundaries should always be set by the independent boundary commission to avoid gerrymandering, but it is wrong that councils cannot influence the number of councillors. At the moment Cornwall has 123 elected members. There are arguments in favour of a reduction and others in favour of the status quo, but we have no power to decide or even to call on the boundary commission to review the number. At a time when budgets all round are being cut, it seems wrong that councillor numbers cannot be considered.

As before, I'm not committed to implementing any of the ideas - and Cornwall Council certainly isn't. But I do think councils should have the power to make up its own mind on issues like this.

Upper Chapel - Meeting the barrister

This morning, Adam Paynter and I had the chance to meet with Ned Helme, the barrister who will be presenting Cornwall Council's case at the planning inquiry into the application to build 100 new homes off Upper Chapel in Launceston. The application was opposed by the vast majority of local residents, by the town council and unanimously by Cornwall Council's strategic planning committee.

However, as is their right, the applicants have appealed and the decision will now be made by an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State after a full inquiry to be held from 18-21 March in Launceston town hall.

Cornwall Council will present its case through Mr Helme who will call witnesses. The applicant will also present a case and may call witnesses. It will be up to the inspector to decide, but it is expected that members of the public will also be able to have their say at some point during proceedings. Unfortunately, the timing of any such public evidence session won't be known until the inquiry starts. Anyone who does want to speak is therefore encouraged to come along at the start of the first day to find out when they can speak.

Also presenting their case will be the town council.

I'm delighted that Mr Helme is presenting our case. I found him today to be absolutely on top of his brief and he will get a lot of support from council planning and legal officers. I'm convinced that the council is doing its utmost to support the views of local people and the decision of the planning committee on this matter.

Apologies - an earlier version of this post said that the inquiry would be held from 16-19 March which is incorrect. Sorry for the mistake and thanks to the person who pointed out my error.