Monday, 31 March 2014

Cornwall bucks national trend to cut council tax bills for poorest residents

A report for the Guardian has shown that in many parts of the country, some of the poorest residents are facing having to pay council tax for the first time. Here in Cornwall - thanks to the Liberal Democrats being part of the administration - the reverse is happening and people who genuinely cannot afford to pay are being taken out of the council tax system.

A year ago, the government devolved responsibility for council tax benefit to local authorities. The new system - known as council tax support - needed to be run with 10% less money. This meant that councils had a choice in order to make the books balance - to make people pay for the first time or to find the money from elsewhere. Councils that limited the amount imposed on new payers got a government grant. That grant has now run out and so many of the councils that sought to protect people last year are having to impose charges on people this year.

Here in Cornwall, the Conservatives forced through a proposal to make working age households pay at least 25%. They did introduce an exceptional relief policy, but only allowing people to claim up to half the amount owed.

Together with my Lib Dem colleagues, I have always argued that whilst some people could afford to pay something, there were also some who really could afford to pay nothing. In such cases, the process of billing them, taking them to court and so on was a futile exercise which just wastes money that we are never going to get back.

That's why, together with our Indie colleagues in the new administration, we have changed the hardship fund so that, in the case of the poorest, we will allow 100% relief. We believe that people who can afford to pay should be expected to do so. But we know that this is not possible in every case and we have changed the rules accordingly.

Business rate relief for charities and foodbanks

Various Conservative councillors and hangers-on appear to be getting very hot under the collar about changes to the discretionary rate relief policy in Cornwall which mean that worthy organisations like charities, foodbanks and tourist information centres are being charged rates.

What they seem to forget is that the new policy was put in place during the short time that Cllr Fiona Ferguson (now Tory Group Leader) was in charge of this subject as a member of the cabinet in 2012/13.

As ever, the Conservatives are bleating, but they aren't making any proposals for what they would do instead.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

£1 All Day Saturday parking returns to Launceston

I'm really pleased to have been able to help secure the return of £1 all day parking on Saturdays starting from April 5th. The trial will run in Cornwall Council car parks in Launceston every Saturday until the end of June, but we hope it is successful enough to be made permanent.

In December, Cornwall Council ran a similar scheme for its car parks in the town in the run up to Christmas. According to local shops and cafes, this was a huge success and they saw many people taking advantage of the offer to stay longer in the town. At the same time, the town council made the multi-storey car park free for the final two Saturdays before Christmas.

Because the initial trial ran in December, and because of the town council offer at the same time, it wasn't possible for Cornwall Council to get an accurate idea of the impact of the £1 all day trial. So Jade Farrington and I have been working to get the offer back again - this time for a longer run. We remain convinced that it will bring more people into town for longer. So it will benefit town traders, but not mean a loss of income for the council.

I'm delighted that the council has now agreed and the trial will run for three months in the Cattle Market, Pannier Market, Walk House and Castle Street car parks. In order to take advantage of the offer, you need to buy a £1 pay and display ticket from the machine. You cannot use the RingGo system. Ignore the expiry time on the ticket - paying £1 means you can stay all day!

This is one of the key aims that my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have campaigned for. We know that parking charges are felt to be high in Cornwall Council car parks and that is why we put aside money to underwrite trials like this. We believe that we can make parking fairer for commuters, for visitors and for shoppers by reducing charges, whilst still keeping the income that the council needs in order to provide all the other services that road users rely on.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Another £10 million to repair Cornwall's storm damage

Cornwall will be getting more than £10 million from the government to help repair our roads and other crucial infrastructure following the winter’s bad weather. That’s really good news and takes Cornwall more than halfway towards the total bill caused by the floods and storms.

The latest bill for repairs is around £24 million. We know that roughly £4 million of this was in the form of emergency works and some of this will be covered by the revised Bellwin scheme. We expect to get around £2 million back from Bellwin.

The latest news is a second pot will bring £10.76 million to fix potholes and other roads damaged by the bad weather.

That still leaves around £11 million more which is unfunded to date. I understand that the government is making further money available via the Environment Agency and the council will have to bid for this. We believe that we have a strong case and that Cornwall needs this support to put things back to ‘normal’ after the events of this winter. Even with the money announced to date, the council could not afford to pick up the rest of the bill.




Nick Clegg in Launceston - and more money for Cornish language

Nick Clegg was in Launceston yesterday to meet with local Liberal Democrat members and supporters. We were hosted by Liberty Coffee and Jericho’s - appropriately the old Liberal Club building.

Earlier in the day, Nick announced that there would be another year’s funding for the Cornish Language Partnership - £120,000. The Cornish language is an important part of the Cornish culture and having continuing funding to promote it is very good news.




Thursday, 20 March 2014

Tory MEP calls for drugs to be legalised and taxed

Local Conservative MEP Giles Chichester is calling for drugs to be decriminalised and taxed to raise money for the Treasury. In a letter to local papers, Mr Chichester, who has been an MEP since 1994 and is a former leader of the Tory MEPs, says:
"The war on drugs has not failed completely but needs to change to meet the demands of a new social order... Criminal prosecution is not solving the [drugs] problem. I can see a potential benefit to health by making recreational drugs available on prescription… I can see a potential reduction in crime by cutting out the illegal market in drugs."
"I could even see a fiscal benefit in taxing things like cannabis so as to put it on a par with alcohol and tobacco We need to consider what is happening in other countries to combat the spread of hard drugs. A Royal Commission to evaluate the evidence is, in my view, a step in the right direction."
The question for local Conservative Police Commissioner Tony Hogg is - does he agree with his party colleague that the war on drugs needs to change. Is he, and are local Conservative MPs and prospective MPs, supportive of a move to decriminalise and tax drugs?

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Upper Chapel inquiry - Day One

Day one of the formal inquiry into the Upper Chapel planning application is over. The inquiry is being held in the town hall and will determine whether Hallam Land Management receive outline permission to build 100 new homes on the edge of the town.

The original application was rejected unanimously by Cornwall Council, principally on the grounds of the impact on local roads and because the town framework plan showed that sufficient housing and other development could be provided on preferable sites around the town.

So far it has been relatively slow going, with only the opening statements and two council officers giving evidence. Proceedings have been slightly difficult with the lack of a proper public address system in the town hall and consequent difficulties in hearing for members of the public. Unfortunately, the town council wasn't made aware of the need for this but when they were it was fixed pretty quickly.

Local councillors Adam Paynter and myself, as well as Andrew Long from Callington who proposed rejected of the application when it was discussed at the strategic planning committee, will give evidence tomorrow. So too will the town council and members of the public who have asked to be able to have their say.

Huge thanks to everyone from Launceston who has so far come along to see proceedings in action. Each will be able to make up their own mind of the evidence to date, but your support is very much appreciated.

Day two begins tomorrow at 9.30am and the inquiry is scheduled to last until Friday lunchtime.



Thursday, 13 March 2014

Working for Cornwall - Council launches films to show what we do for residents

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I'm very proud to see the council launching a series of short films to demonstrate what it is that we do on behalf of residents and businesses and how we spend your council tax and the other money we take in.

The films are called 'Working for Cornwall' because that's what we do every day of the year.

The main film is five minutes long and there are three shorter films - all less than a minute - focussing on people, businesses and the environment. All the films present the views of local residents as well as showing the services we provide.

At a time when the council is having to make savings of £196 million, we still think it is important to communicate with residents to show that we are doing the basics day in - day out. In the past, this has tended to be with a brochure sent out alongside the council tax bill. That was big and expensive to post. By not producing it, we have saved around £35,000 in postage costs alone. The series of videos cost nothing in cash terms and have so far taken a combined total of about 24 hours of officer time - a much better investment.

We also want to listen to what you have to say to us. I'd encourage everyone to watch the videos and let me know what you think. The main video is embedded above. The rest can be found here, alongside more information.

Free dog micro-chipping coming to your area

Cornwall Council, in partnership with the Dogs Trust, is running another series of free dog chipping events across Cornwall.

To find your nearest event, see the poster.

The success of the dog chipping campaign is also celebrated in one of the new short videos produced by the council to show how we spend your council tax.

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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Why the tourist tax debate needs to kick off

Lib Dem local government minister is reported to have backed the idea of a tourist tax. Stephen Williams wasn't talking specifically about Cornwall, but it is a debate that should be started.

I start off from the point of view that I think Cornwall (and other councils) should have more freedoms and powers. And that these should include the right to raise money in new forms including through a well worked out tourist tax.

BUT...

I'm far from convinced as yet that a tourist tax for Cornwall is either workable or a good idea. So let's start to work out what is possible and whether or not it is desirable.

That discussion would have to be held with no preconditions and it would have to be undertaken including a wide range of different viewpoints, including the visitor industry - hotels, attractions, restaurants etc. - the council, the wider public sector and residents.

And whilst a 'bed tax' is spoken of pretty frequently, there are going to be other models which might be better and which should be considered.

Such work would take a number of years, but in view of further cuts in local government funding and the likely knock on effects on the services we provide that affect the visitor industry, I believe it is something worth considering. Only when we have the facts can we decide whether it is a good idea or not to actually implement. Ultimately, it would be for local councillors to decide whether or not to introduce it and they would be accountable for their decision through the ballot box.

(Needless to say, I should point out that this is a personal view, not that of the council or my group)

UPDATE: Because I have been challenged on this issue: I have always opposed the idea of a tourist tax for Cornwall. I don't think it would have the benefits claimed and think that the downsides would far outweigh the positives. However, there are two reasons why I think it is right to discuss the issue. The first is in the context of the devolution of greater powers and responsibility to Cornwall. I think it is right to pass on powers even where I think it would be wrong to exercise those powers.
Second, the issue of a tourist tax has been brought up often enough in the past - not least by the Council's former Director of Economy - that I think we need to have to debate to show why it would be the wrong idea. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Information Commissioner investigating Police Boss Hogg

The Information Commissioner's office has confirmed that they are investigating the refusal by Devon and Cornwall's Tory Police Commissioner to reveal the pay off given to ex Chief Executive Sue Howl.

Ms Howl was the former Chief Exec of the Police Authority but left less than a year after the new Police Commissioner Tony Hogg took up his post. Officially, this was 'to pursue other challenges'. I asked whether she had been given a pay off, but Mr Hogg refused to answer, citing confidentiality issues.

My argument is that when public money is involved, there should be a much higher presumption in favour of publication. I'm particularly concerned if a pay off was given when she apparently left of her own accord. In the real world, if someone chooses to leave their job then they aren't given money to go. If, on the other hand, a payment is given then it tends to suggest that she was pushed rather than jumped.

I await the judgement of the Information Commissioner.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Tory Leader says it is 'unfair' to fill potholes or buy a fire engine

In her latest gaffe, Cornwall Council's Tory leader Fiona Ferguson has ranted against the amount being spent by the authority on 'council vehicles'. Unfortunately, she has failed to realise that her dodgy dossier includes money for a new fire engine and equipment to fill holes in the road.

Fiona took the published spending information that the council produces every month. She added up the amounts in the 'vehicles and plant' categories to come up with a set of figures which are mostly accurate (but her abacus seems to be out by around £300,000 in one month - not a small amount). She asks if the level of spending is fair.

Except she misses two key points:

- The first is that the list isn't just vehicles. It is plant as well. So it includes things like machines to fill potholes. I presume that she is now against filling potholes. Oh, and a new fire engine. I can't believe that she is against our Fire and Rescue Service having the right equipment to fight fires and save lives, but that's the implication of her words.

- Second, her outburst only shows half the story. For every vehicle or bit of equipment bought, there has to be a business case. In other words, the council has to do things better and cheaper than we were doing without the purchase.

So, in the case of any cars that are bought, they are either pool cars or provided cars (cars used on a full-time basis by a single officer. Oh, and a couple of Fire Service response vehicles too. They are cars that are used by our officers instead of them using their own cars and charging us mileage. And, unlike the system that used to operate under the previous (Tory-led) administration, we only provide cars to staff who do over a certain number of miles per year. So we only provide them where they will save money. And, again unlike under the previous administration, we buy small economic cars, not top of the range Audis.

Is this really the best the Conservatives can do? Campaign against filling potholes and fighting fires?