Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Council staff help Cornwall with £5.4 million of savings

Cornwall Council's staff have stepped up to the plate and look set to agree a new pay package which will secure £5.4 million of savings for the authority. At the same time, the council will be implementing the living wage as the minimum for its staff.

Over the next four years, Cornwall Council must save £196 million. Ultimately, much of this money must come from cuts to services, but the council is determined to make savings from 'back office' functions and administration where possible. The council has been in discussions with staff and unions for some time to see what deal might be possible on pay and conditions. The package announced today is the result.

As a first step, the council cut the pay of the chief executive and slimmed down from six directorates to three. This will save £400,000 and it is important that the direction and leadership is shown right from the top.

The new package commits the council to maintaining national pay and conditions but changes the locally agreed pay elements with a deferral of the 'contribution related pay' scheme for three years.

The decision to adopt the living wage is important too. It shows our commitment as an employer to making sure that our staff at the bottom end of the pay tree have a decent standard of living. It will apply to all directly employed staff except those employed on apprenticeship schemes (although it should be noted that the council pays more than the basic apprenticeship wage to these employees).

The new package has been supported by the unions and will be recommended by them in the required ballot of members. I think they have been pragmatic in these discussions (as they have been in the past too), getting a good deal for both taxpayers and staff with the minimum of fuss and no disruption to services.

There will, of course, be more savings to come from staff pay as the further cuts that are necessary will inevitably mean staff losses at the council. But this deal will help to ensure that more frontline services are preserved than might have been the case if no deal could have been reached.

Welcome Jim McKenna

Jim McKenna has been announced as the new cabinet member for Health and Adult Care. He takes over from Judith Haycock.

Jim was nominated by the Independent group and has been appointed by the Leader to his new role. I've only known him for a year as he was newly elected in last year's election, but has spent that time chairing the health scrutiny committee. However he has a lot of experience in local government as former chief executive of Penwith.

I worked with Judith for four years as members of the Communities Scrutiny Committee on the old council. She put a lot of effort into that role as well as into her cabinet position and has been a pleasure to work alongside. I regret that she has chosen to stand aside but understand the reasons.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Radio Cornwall story on 16 year old being sent a poll card

Radio Cornwall has raised concerns today about the potential for people who are not entitled to vote being sent poll cards for the forthcoming European Parliament elections. It seems that a mistake was made in the individual case raised - for which the council has apologised - but we know that this was an isolated incident.

Every year, the council sends out registration forms to every household in Cornwall. These request the details of every adult living in the house, as well as everyone aged 16 or 17 (with their date of birth) as these people will become eligible to vote during the lifetime of the register.

Sadly, some 78,000 households fail to send back the form each year and so the council spends about £24,000 sending reminders out. Even these don't get a full response and so we have to pay around £69,000 for around 30,000 personal visits to people's homes.

In the case highlighted by the radio, the household failed to send back both the original form and the reminder. It was only when our canvasser knocked on their door that we got a form filled in. Sadly, the information given was incorrect in that it did not include a date of birth for someone who is only 16. The council has to take this information at face value and so the 16 year old was included on the electoral register. I'm sure that this was an innocent mistake rather than an attempt to commit electoral fraud.

Some two months later, another form was received from the household which included a fourth person (aged 17) and also included the 16 year old's date of birth for the first time. The council added the 17 year old but failed to note the date of birth of the 16 year old. That was a mistake on the part of the council and we have apologised.

However, it would be wrong to think that this is any more than a one-off event. Most people do fill in the form correctly and the council has looked again at its procedures to make sure that it won't make the same mistake again.

There is also a back up check as the presiding officer at a polling station will refuse to issue a ballot paper to someone under the age of 18 even if they have (mistakenly) been sent a poll card.

But the electoral registration system is changing to make even this mistake much more unlikely in the future. The introduction of individual electoral registration means that each person will be responsible for their own form and each application to join the register will be checked by the DWP against their database of National Insurance numbers. So the date of birth of every person will be recorded and 16 or 17 year olds cannot be sent poll cards.

Five years ago, Cornwall Council made a series of mistakes in our elections service and were rightly criticised. Since then, staff have put a lot of effort into getting things right and we are now recognised as one of the highest performing elections teams in the country. In Cornwall, we have have confidence that our elections are safe and secure.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Terry Wilkins resigns

Terry Wilkins, the Conservative Councillor for Illogan, has today resigned from the authority.

Mr Wilkins had attracted a lot of attention after allegations were levelled about his claim to have been awarded an MBE - something he said was part of an 'elaborate prank' by former police colleagues. It later emerged that he also did not hold an Open University degree as he had claimed at various times. Mr Wilkins said that this was part of a 'joke' with an un-named person.



Thursday, 24 April 2014

Elan Homes want taxpayers to pay for their failings

At a time when Cornwall Council is having to make £196 million of savings over the next five years, it takes some nerve for a private company which is failing in its duty to local residents to suggest that council tax payers pick up after them.

But that is what Elan Homes, the developers of Kensey Valley Meadow in Launceston have done.

The roads and open spaces on the estate are due to be adopted (ie taken over) by the council. But only when the building work has been completed and the infrastructure brought up to scratch. The roads have now all be adopted, but the open spaces are still the responsibility of Elan Homes. Elan have told me that they have a contractor who cuts the grass and does the other grounds maintenance work once a month. Except, just as last year, we are at Easter and there still hasn't been any work on the estate. If I were Elan, I would be asking for my money back.

But this doesn't help the local residents who are struggling with grass which is two feet high and rising.

I have been pressing Elan Homes for action on this for a number of weeks. Eventually they replied with (inaccurate) claims about the work taking place once a month but also suggesting that if Cornwall Council wants action, perhaps taxpayers might like to pick up the expense.

This is incredible and totally unacceptable as a response. Local residents deserve to have a decent level of service from all those organisations who have a responsibility to provide them. If the council makes a mistake, I expect them to apologise and make good. The same should go for businesses such as Elan Homes. They were quick enough to take people's money when it came to selling the houses in the first place. But it seems they are unwilling to shell out for decent local services now that money is in the bank.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

National Minority status for the Cornish - a massive Lib Dem win and a win for Cornwall

Tomorrow, the government will announce that National Minority Status has been given to the Cornish people, under the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander will make the announcement. He is joining North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson in Bodmin to meet with representatives of cultural organisations in the Duchy including the Cornish Gorsedh and Maga, the Cornish Language Partnership, to discuss the announcement and the importance of Cornwall's culture and identity to the local economy. Dan has been the driving force behind the move for national minority status over many years.

The UK signed up to the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities 15 years ago, but the last Labour government said that the Cornish couldn't be recognised under the Convention. Today's announcement follows years of campaigning by Cornish Liberal Democrat MPs to recognise Cornwall's unique culture, heritage and identity.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities seeks to protect the rights of minorities in states across Europe. With recognition, it will no longer be possible for the government (or anyone else) to pretend Cornwall doesn't exist.

Commenting on the announcement North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson said:

"Today's announcement means that the Cornish will finally be recognised as one of the constituent peoples of the UK alongside the Welsh, Scottish and Irish. It will also make sure that public institutions take account of Cornwall's unique identity. Despite the fact that the last Labour Government said that the Cornish couldn't be recognised in this way, Liberal Democrats in Coalition Government have made sure that the Cornish people, and our traditions, culture and heritage, now have the same status as everyone else.

"I'd like to thank Lib Dem Communities Minister Stephen Williams, his predecessor Don Foster, and the Chief Secretary Danny Alexander for listening to the case that we made. Thanks is also due to supporters for the cause from across the Duchy, and particularly to Ian Saltern who has edited the last two reports that we submitted to the government, which made the case for National Minority Status for the Cornish."

Last month Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced £120,000 of government funding for the Cornish language. In March Liberal Democrat members voted to make it their party policy to introduce a law-making Cornish Assembly.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

September 2014 reception class places - letters being sent out

There has been a slight improvement in the number of children in Cornwall who have been allocated a reception place at their first choice school. Letters to parents of reception age children across Cornwall will receive details of which school their child is due to attend in September today or tomorrow.

The Council received 5225 applications for new reception school places for pupils in Cornwall to start school in September 2014. Of those 4910 (94%) have been offered a place at their first preference school, with 315 pupils being allocated a place at either their second (169 pupils), or third (40 pupils) preference school.  This means that 97.9% of children have been allocated one of their three preferences.

106 pupils (2.1%) have not been allocated a place at either their first, second or third preference school, but at the nearest school to their home address with room.  All reception age pupils who applied for a school place in Cornwall have been allocated a place.

This is fractionally up on last year when 93.1% of children were allocated a place in their first preference school, with 97.5% being allocated one of their three preferences.

Based on the figures to date, there are 47 over subscribed primary schools for new reception September 2014 admissions in Cornwall. This is a similar number to the figure for the past two years, with 45 over subscribed schools in 2013, and 49 over subscribed schools in 2012. There has, however, been an increase in the number of schools which are full for new reception admissions in September 2014. 71 out of Cornwall’s 236 primary schools are full, compared with 60 schools in 2013.

The Council’s admissions team have received 247 late applications for new reception places so far this year, with further late admissions expected in the next few weeks. The deadline for the second round of applications is 2 May.

All parents who applied for a place by the deadline will receive a letter formally telling them about the place their child has been allocated. This letter will also have details of how to appeal or go on a waiting list. It is important, if a parent wishes to appeal, that they fill in the proper forms fully. It is more important to get them right and with all the information required than try to break any records for returning them, but you should not wait too long. Waiting lists will become active after May 2nd.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Kresen Kernow consultation coming to Launceston next week

Interested in Cornwall’s history, archaeology and culture?  Want to get involved with shaping the future of the service that cares for the millions of records including documents, photographs, books, maps and databases that capture this information?   Then why not have your say on the development of the Kresen Kernow project?  

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Cornwall Council, the new centre will house Cornwall Council’s archives and historic collections, and will be built on the old brewery site in Redruth. 

The scheme is due for completion in 2017 and members of the project team are now offering people the opportunity to share their views on the services, events and activities they want to see the project and the building provide.

The formal consultation will come to:

Launceston - Tuesday 22nd April. Launceston Town Hall, 10am to 3pm.

Penzance - Thursday 1st May. Pop-Up Penzance (in Peasgoods, the old pharmacy in Market Jew Street), 10am to 3pm

Truro – Saturday 3rd May. Lemon Quay, Farmers Market, 10am to 3pm.

Bude – Saturday 10th May. Bude Castle Heritage Centre, 10am to 3pm.

These are the latest in a series of consultation roadshows which have been taking place in venues across Cornwall to enable people to learn more about the project, and share ideas and suggestions for the archive centre and its services.  For full details of the events and locations visit www.cornwall.gov.uk/kresenkernow or find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kresenkernow.

There is also a survey on the Council’s website which people can use to give their views. You can read more about the project and find the online survey at www.cornwall.gov.uk/kresenkernow.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Cornwall's buses protected

In among all the cuts that the council is being forced to make in order to achieve £196 million of savings over the next five years, there are still some areas which we are able to protect. These are services which are considered to be so important that we cannot afford to lose them.

One of the services that Liberal Democrats have most championed is the local bus network. We have said that we will seek to protect lifeline services that allow those without access to cars to get around. Whilst some services are commercially viable, others rely on council subsidy. The council cannot afford to subsidise routes that aren't used, but when they are a vital lifeline we will do so.

The council has just been through a route tendering exercise - asking firms to bid to run various routes. This process isn't yet complete, but the overall picture is of no real cuts to the current level of service in the coming year.

So after years in which the bus route network has been cut back, I'm delighted that the Lib Dems in administration have been able to work with our Independent partners to halt the cuts. 

As we review all that the council does, buses will have to be considered alongside other services. But I think that being able to stabilise the current service level is a positive move.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Upper Chapel appeal allowed - new houses given the go ahead despite local objections

The decision in the case of the planning appeal over the application to build 100 new homes at Upper Chapel has come through. The appeal has been allowed and permission for the new homes has been given.

As local residents will know, the detailed town framework plan discussed where new developments should go around the town and came to the conclusion that the area off Upper Chapel was the wrong area and could not be supported, mainly because it would make a bad highways situation even worse.

Sadly, the inspector has not supported this view. In his opinion, the congestion situation already exists, is not that bad and would not become much worse if the development gets the go ahead.

As for the town's stated preference for building in other areas, he says that the town framework plan is not sufficiently advanced and cannot be given weight. In its absence, there is nothing to say that this land is any worse than the land off the Link Road, and so the development will be allowed.

This is obviously hugely disappointing for all of us who fought long and hard against the application. I still believe that this development will do huge harm to the local area. I also believe that local people and local councillors should be given the power to decide where development goes. So long as we accept our fair share, we should have the reasonable power to decide on location. It would appear that the law on which this decision was based denies us that right.

Cornwall Council and the town council will have to reflect on the detailed reasoning given by the inspector. There is no further route of appeal in this case and so we must make the best of the development that will happen.

Turf cutting for new Bodmin offices

This morning I joined local councillors and North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson to formally cut the turf to start the building of the new council office building in Bodmin.

The reason behind the project is to save money for Cornwall Council and, therefore, for Cornish taxpayers. Every pound that we do not have to spend on our own offices is a pound we can spend on vital frontline services.

At the moment, the council's office estate in Bodmin is old and dilapidated in parts. It is certainly not efficient or cheap. By spending money on new offices now, we will be able to bring all our local staff together in an efficientbase. We can then get rid of the expensive leases for rented property and sell off the buildings we own but no longer need.

We will also be building some space in the new offices to rent. The first option for this space has been given to our partners in BT and they have said they are interested in taking it up. But in case they choose not to, the council has also been talking to other public sector organisations and private companies who have also expressed an interest. Our aim is not just to save money for the Cornish taxpayer, but also to bring new jobs to Cornwall.

In West Cornwall, the council has consolidated staff from lots of smaller offices into fewer, larger offices. So we now have 1200 staff in county hall instead of 600 and 600 in Dolcoath in Camborne instead of 300. Making the best use of these buildings is sensible but there was no building in Bodmin suitable for this sort of treatment and so the new build is the bets option.



Thursday, 10 April 2014

Cornwall Council compensation claims

Radio Cornwall have splashed this morning on figures for the amount paid out in compensation to people by Cornwall Council for trips, falls and suchlike.

Overall the amount paid out is relatively steady at about £200,000 each year. That's quite a lot of money which could be better spent on providing frontline services. But it is actually a comparatively low amount when you look at other councils.

Cornwall Council receives just over 5 complaints per 1000 residents each year. In comparison, the average for our sort of council is just over 7 complaints per 1000 residents. And in terms of compensation paid, Cornwall pays out only about a third as much as similar councils per head.

The duty of the council is to keep our roads and pavements in good order and, when a problem is reported, we have to take action to fix it as quickly as possible. That's why we regularly assess the road and pavement network for faults and why we will respond very quickly when issues arise. It's also why the initial 'fix' may not look very good and doesn't last very long, but it does last long enough to enable a permanent fix to be scheduled and carried out.

The council only has liability if it could reasonably be expected to have known about a problem and have a chance to fix it. That's why only around 10% of claims relating to potholes resulted in a payout.

Where someone suffers damage or injury as a result of council inaction, we will of course, pay fair compensation. It's unlikely that we will ever be perfect and reduce the compensation bill to nothing. But the aim is always to keep the amount paid out as low as possible. To help us to spend as much of our money as possible on frontline services, residents can help by reporting any potholes or other problems on 0300 1234 100.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Cornwall Council statement on Langarth Development

Cornwall Council has just issued the following statement with regard to the Langarth development between Truro and Threemilestone:

"As part of the planning permission given for the Langarth Farm mixed use development Cornwall Council was required to exercise an option for outdoor sports provision to serve the development in accordance with the Heads of Terms of the section 106 agreement approved by the Strategic Planning Committee in May 2012.

Three options were originally proposed and, having carefully considered all the relevant issues, the Council’s Director of Economy, Enterprise and Environment has today formally notified  the owners of the land, the Stephens family, and INOX, the developer, that he is requiring the parcel of land, known as 'the Blue Land', to be transferred to the Council.  This transfer will also include a sum of up to £900,000 which will be used to provide outdoor sports facilities for the local community at a later date, post commencement of the development.

This option provides the best facilities and the best potential for future expansion and, is, therefore, considered to be in the overall best interests of current and future residents of the Langarth and Threemilestone area.

In making this decision, the Council was required to consider how best to provide open space and outdoor sports facilities to serve the Langarth development. At a later date other developments in the area may well share the facility subject to appropriate s106 agreement contributions. Various other matters, including the provision of a stadium, are outside the scope of this decision and could not be legally required as part of the s106 agreement.

The site chosen by the Council for open space is the same land that has planning permission for a stadium to be built. However, selecting this option will ensure that the largest and flattest area has been preserved for public use and will ensure that it is not the subject of an application for an alternative development proposal, which is a real risk should the Council not choose this option. Selecting this land does not necessarily preclude its development for a stadium in the future.

While the Council has previously expressed its support in principle for a stadium funded by the private sector, no substantive plans have been put forward to build the stadium since the original planning permission was granted.  Should a realistic proposal come forward in the future, the Council would consider the feasibility of exchanging the stadium site for similar alternative  land in the Threemilestone and Langarth area for open space and public sports provision.

We note INOX's offer to extend the period of time in which the decision could be made. We thank them for this but note that it would require a change to the existing planning obligation and the consent of landowners. As we do not believe that additional time would lead to a better informed or a different decision, we do not think it would be beneficial to take it."

UPDATE: I'm sorry to see that a Conservative hanger-on is busy trying to stir up trouble on this issue by lying. The truth is as detailed above. Whilst members of the cabinet were asked for our opinions on this issue, the decision was taken by officers. Those same officers also sought the opinion of the two local councillors for the area - including the Conservative group leader Cllr Ferguson. Both indicated their support for the option that was chosen.

If anyone has any questions or wants clarification, please get in touch and I'd be happy to get them an answer.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Scott Mann's budget attack highlights his failures - Updated

Conservative councillor Scott Mann certainly wins the award for breath-taking hypocrisy. Last week he issued a press release attacking the council's budget. But neither he, nor his Conservative colleagues did anything about this when they had the chance. Indeed, Cllr Mann couldn't even be bothered to turn up when the budget and council tax was being debated and voted on in February.

At a time when the council is having to make £196 million of savings, there are always going to be tough choices. I understand that the will be different views as to where the cuts should be made. That's why I hosted 25 public meetings to listen to what the people of Cornwall had to say - a process derided by the Tories as a waste of time.

But when it came time to listen to the different options from the political parties, there was no alternative from the Tories or anyone else. They had nothing whatsoever to say for themselves.

Cllr Mann also claims that the council should be cutting chief officer salaries. If he bothered to turn up once in a while, Cllr Mann would know that the council is cutting its director numbers from six to three and has cut the pay rates for top officers too.

Cllr Mann wants to become our MP. But what use is he when he doesn't turn up for the crucial debate and votes that matter to local people?


UPDATE: Cllr Mann clearly doesn't like being challenged as he has taken to twitter to threaten me. Is this really the sort of thing that is appropriate for a would be MP?