Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Scott Mann on the MPs pay rise

Just to be clear, new Tory MP for North Cornwall Scott Mann absolutely and completely disagrees with the idea that MPs should get a 10% pay rise.

But he's trousering the cash nonetheless.

Tony Hogg will not re-stand as Police Commissioner

The elected Police and crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Tony Hogg, has announced this morning that he will not be standing when the position comes up for re-election next May.

Mr Hogg has set out a number of reasons for his decision but a key point is that he no longer feels able to keep his promise to maintain a minimum of 3000 police officers for the force. This has been a key pledge and he says he is now allowing the chief constable to structure the force in a different way.

Mr Hogg, a Conservative, has also said that if he is not successful in his campaign to get an extra £12m from the government then he will proposed a large increase in the police element of council tax next year. Any increase above 2% would require public approval in a costly referendum. Mr Hogg's budget is subject to approval by the Tory dominated panel which scrutinises him but the rules are such that they can only reject his budget once. In effect, a commissioner can force through pretty much any budget they wish.



Monday, 20 July 2015

Potholes and trip hazards - Inspecting Launceston's roads for defects

This morning I joined fellow Cornwall Councillor Jade Farrington and town councillor Dave Gordon to see the work of one of Cornwall's highways inspectors. The inspector was going round the centre of the town looking for problems with pavements and roads and marking them for repair.

This is an exercise that is undertaken every eight weeks in Launceston and, during the two hours we spent in the town centre, we found 25 defects which have been marked for repair.

To be considered a defect, a hole needs to be 20mm deep if it is on the pavement or 40mm deep if it is on the road. But it also needs to be capable of repair, so there are some triangular gaps on the edges of pavements which could be filled in but the filling would come out again within 24 hours. That makes such repairs time consuming and wasteful.

Each defect that is noted is logged into the council's system using a handheld GPS enabled computer. It is also visibly marked on the street with yellow crayon. Repairs in town centres take place by the end of the next working day - so all of those we saw will be repaired by close of play on Tuesday.

Brian the inspector told us that 25 defects is relatively high for a single inspection route. Part of the issue is that Launceston town centre pavements are largely made up of granite slabs - now 150 years old. These are more prone to breakages than asphalt pavements and the gaps between slabs can open up very easily. You could quickly and dramatically cut the number of repairs by replacing all these with tarmac pavements - but at huge cost and probably to the detriment of how the town looks. (Before anyone gets concerned, no-one is suggesting this is ever going to happen).

Problems do occur between inspections. So if you know of a defect on a pavement or roadway in town (and it is not already marked with yellow crayon) please get in touch.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Cornwall could be first in line for Votes at 16

A Lib Dem amendment in the House of Lords could lead to Cornwall being one of the first parts of the UK where 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote for local councillors. It's been a long journey since I was one of the co-founders of the Votes at 16 campaign in 2001.

The Lib Dem peers proposed the amendment to the government's Cities and Devolution Bill. It was passed by 221 votes to 154 and would have the effect of allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections. Given the time taken to bring a new law into effect and to register the new voters, it is unlikely that any change would come into effect before May 2017 when Cornwall Council will be up for election.

The House of Lords has voted in favour of lowering the voting age before. I assisted Conservative peer Lord Lucas with his bill in 2003 but such efforts have always been on a private members bills like that of Ralph Lucas rather than an amendment to legislation. Yesterday's government defeat will become law unless it is overturned in the House of Commons - in which case the matter will bounce between the two houses of Parliament until one gives way.

The voting age was lowered for the Scottish Independence referendum last year. It showed (as other instances around the world have also done) that 16 and 17 year olds took the issue of voting very seriously and entered into the debate fully. Their reasons for voting a particular way mirrored those of older electors.

Young people can get married at 16. They can also leave school and enter work. They have to pay tax and they can join the army. What they cannot do is to vote for the people who make the laws on all these matters.

It also makes sense to have a voting age set at a point in a person's life when they are most stable - before the upheaval of leaving home for university or whatever. The research shows that if a person votes when they are first entitled to then they are more likely to carry on voting throughout their life. If they don't vote first time then they are more likely to become permanent non-voters.

Whilst nationally the Conservatives oppose lowering the voting age, in Scotland the party has come out in favour having seen the positive experience of the independence referendum. Lib Dems, Labour, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru all support a lower voting age and will put up a strong case when the issue is debated in the House of Commons in the autumn. I very much hope that the government recognises that this is a matter both of common sense and fairness and accepts the Lib Dem amendment.

Government's Cornwall Deal is 'Devolution Lite' - UPDATED

The terms of the Government's devolution deal for Cornwall - discussed behind closed doors by the council on Tuesday - can now be revealed. Cornwall may be the first rural area of the country to sign such a deal, but this is devolution-lite with key areas of the Case for Cornwall ignored.

Despite a very strong argument put forward by Cornwall for a wide range of new powers and responsibilities, the government have ignored the key areas of planning, housing, much of heritage and - crucially - they have not been prepared to concede any freedoms or flexibilities for Cornwall to decide matters to do with finance.

I applaud the work done by the Lib Dem - Independent cabinet running the council. They have led the process and achieved a lot. Throughout, the Conservative Group at County Hall have campaigned against the Case for Cornwall and would not even have achieved today's deal had they been in charge.

In my view, it is vital that Cornwall has more control over our own planning rules. We are governed by the National Planning Policy Framework which is designed for the whole of the UK. This one size fits all approach runs wholly counter to the concept of devolution but the government refused to budge. Many of us called for a 'Cornwall Planning Framework' to allow the somewhat different needs of our area to be put first.

The deal also refuses to allow Cornwall any freedom to take action on second homes. We asked in the Case for Cornwall for freedom to create a separate use class for second homes so as to require planning permission in areas where they are a threat to the community. We also asked for the right to charge a second home levy on council tax. Both have been denied by the government.

We know that there is a particular problem with housing in Cornwall with many people, particularly young people, priced out of the market. We asked for more control over housing policy to address this but were refused.

Cornwall also asked for more devolution in the area of finance. We wanted to be free of the Whitehall diktat to be able to take decisions in the interests of the people of Cornwall. Even after we watered down requests for more freedom over council tax, the government still refused to give ground. There has not even been an acknowledgement of the need for fairer funding.

The fear I voiced at Tuesday's council meeting was that, after today, the government would walk away believing that their conversations with Cornwall are at an end and that this is 'job done'. In truth, this is a step in the right direction, but it is barely a third of what Cornwall was asking for and Cornwall needs in order to control and shape our own destiny.

UPDATE:

Apologies for failing to note that the Government's line is that they will only discuss giving further power to Cornwall in the area of finance, planning and housing if Cornwall has a directly elected mayor, centralising all powers in the hands of a single politician. Not even the Tories in Cornwall think that is a good idea and the House of Lords recently threw out a proposal from the government the include mayors in their Cities and Devolution Bill.

UPDATE 2:

Also worth noting that Labour councillors on Tursday voted against the proposed deal. I understand their concerns over the government requirement to hold the discussion in secret, but am concerned that they appear to be against devolution.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Expansion of Launceston Medical Centre

New Tory MP Scott Mann today used Prime Minister's Questions to press the case for the expansion of Launceston Medical Centre. In response, David Cameron told him that he hoped the centre would be part of the new 7-day per week opening.

Sadly, Scott got the wrong end of the stick with his question. He tried to shoehorn a reference to new funding for the NHS and asked whether this could be used to fund expansion. What he fails to realise is that the funding for this expansion is there. It is the bureaucracy of the new NHS Property Company which is holding up permission for the centre to expand to meet the needs of the people of the town. New money would of course be welcome, but it is not the sticking point.

The response from the Prime Minister is also pretty baffling. He wanted to triumph his party's pledge to introduce 7-day per week opening of doctor's surgeries. Again, this would be very welcome in Launceston. But in order to open for longer, you need more doctors, nurses and other practice staff. Launceston Medical Centre has been trying but cannot recruit doctors to fill the hours that it is currently open and this has led to some of the delays for patients. This is not a problem restricted to Launceston but is replicated at practices across Cornwall. The reason is once again the bureaucracy introduced by the Conservatives and the lower number of trainee doctors choosing to enter general practice.

The former Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall Dan Rogerson was extremely active in the campaign to expand Launceston Medical Centre but came up against Conservative brick walls time and again. For the sake of the people of Launceston, I hope that the Prime Minister delivers on his pledge today. But there needs to be a bit more of an understanding of the real issues involved first.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Case for Cornwall

Cornwall Council today passed the 'Case for Cornwall' - our ask of government for more devolution of powers and responsibilities. We also had a briefing about the deal that the Government has negotiated with the authority. Sadly, the latter debate was held behind closed doors at the insistence of the Government.

The case itself is pretty broad with asks in a wide range of areas including the economy and training, culture, transport and the integration of health and social care services. It also includes requests for devolution in housing, planning and for much greater freedoms for Cornwall in respect of finance.

The Case for Cornwall was backed by councillors by 63 votes to 24. All the Conservatives who were present voted against, as did UKIP councillors. Lib Dems and Independents voted (broadly) in favour, as did Labour and MK. Sadly absent was Scott Mann. Although he is now MP for North Cornwall, he is still a councillor. As one of his constituents I got in touch with him to ask his views on the Case for Cornwall. Sadly he has not responded.

As for the deal on offer, the government's demand for secrecy means that I cannot say any more. It's fair to say that it is not all that we might have wanted, however.

The council's official line is that the deal will be made public as soon as it is ready to be announced. I am sure that it is entirely coincidental that David Cameron is planning to be in Cornwall on Thursday, signing pen at the ready.

Cornwall parking charges to fall again

The cost of parking in Cornwall Council car parks will fall again for many drivers as the authority has signed a new deal for those who pay to park by phone.

Until now, paying by phone for parking has incurred a 20p 'convenience fee' for each transaction. That may not be a lot, but it has been enough to deter some drivers. The new contract does away with this charge and I hope that many more drivers will take advantage of cash free parking.

Not only will this mean a saving for drivers, but hopefully also for the council. Whilst there will always be the opportunity to pay by cash, reducing the amount of money in parking machines as more people pay by card will mean less frequent cash collections and a saving for the authority.

Together with my colleagues Jade Farrington and Adam Paynter, I've made fair parking charges one of my main concerns since before I was elected to the council. This is another very welcome step.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Osborne preaches devolution but practises centralisation

George Osborne went big in his budget on the issue of devolution. He is behind the 'Northern Powerhouse' plan to create a powerful city region based around Manchester and to have projects in Leeds, Birmingham and elsewhere. His colleague Greg Clarke, the local government secretary has given a similar message.

So why is the Chancellor now telling local people that he wants to remove their right to make decisions over local planning applications?

The Chancellor's view is that local councils have been to NIMBY-ish and have failed to deliver the new housing needed. He has got a bit of a point in this respect, but most authorities would say that they are not helped by the ever changing regulations from Whitehall and by plans to destroy housing associations through an ill-judged right to buy scheme.

Osborne's answer is to force councils to give automatic planning permission to some housing schemes. This seems like a hugely blunt weapon which will harm local communities.

Most communities are not opposed to development per se. But they do object to insensitive development of bad houses in the wrong places. Here in Launceston, we have set out plans to allow new housing development south of Link Road where the land and infrastructure can cope. We have objected to development in other areas because of the hugely adverse impact on roads. Other towns will have their own concerns. Osborne's plans would appear to remove any vestige of local choice.

But his plans will do even more harm. Councils are currently able to negotiate contributions known as s106 payments to mitigate the harm done by new development. These might pay for public transport, school, leisure or health service improvements for example. Giving an automatic approval to schemes would remove the chance for local councils to negotiate a deal which accurate reflects the impact of a development. It will mean more users of a service with no more money for upkeep.

I agree that we need more housing in Cornwall and across the UK. We need the power to preserve the homes we have for local use and we need to work to build more. But the Conservative plans to give automatic planning permission are the wrong answer in my view.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

A budget to hit the youngest and poorest - a true Tory budget

For all that George Osborne's budget headline is about a new £9 per hour minimum wage by 2020, poorer people, and especially the young, are going to be worse off as a result. And the lack of detail on devolution to Cornwall will have surprised many who were primed for a big (and complex) announcement.

The big surprise of the budget came at the end with the plan to raise minimum wage for over 25s to £9 per hour by 2020. Osborne is going to start very slowly however and is only promising a rise to £7.20 next April. Any rise is welcome, of course. But it should be remembered that the minimum wage was already on course to rise to more than £8 per hour by 2020 under the old plans. And the positive change will be more than off-set for many by changes to tax credits which will see a drop in income for the poorest families.

The chancellor's decision to cap tax credits and other benefits so that families will only get them for the first two children will appeal to many who perceive there to be a problem of large families having more children just to increase their income. He's making an exception for the arrival of twins and triplets, but the bigger problem is likely to be for partners who come together from previous relationships bringing their children with them.

At the same time, the chancellor has slowed the progress of raising the income tax threshold towards the £12,500 goal. Raising the threshold was a Lib Dem idea which David Cameron used to claim was unaffordable. The coalition made it happen though and it has delivered an extra £800 per year into the pockets for workers. That's good. But the Chancellor today announced that the threshold would rise only by £400 next year. Clearly he believes that tax cuts for the rich are a higher priority.

The chancellor has also announced a 1% pay rise cap for public sector workers for the next four years. Which would be made a lot more acceptable if MPs were not about to get a 10% rise.

The minimum wage rise will only benefit those over 25. Younger people will, once again miss out. There is a long standing battle to get equal pay for work of equal value when it comes to gender - and many organisations including local councils have faced large bills to settle claims of discrimination in the past. Surely this should apply to young people as well.

One other fundamental change which will hit the poorest young people is the proposal to abolish the higher education maintenance grant. This enables young people from poorer backgrounds - including many from North Cornwall - to go to university. Now the poorest young people will have to take out additional loans instead - saddling them with more debt than their richer peers if they want to study. It is clear that this will be a barrier to some of the brightest but poorest young people going into higher education.

The biggest surprise to me was the lack of detail on progress towards devolution to Cornwall. We had been primed for a big announcement, setting out the range of powers and responsibilities which Cornwall would be taking on. It didn't come. My understanding is that the Treasury has been changing its mind all the time. It is logical, of course, for the council to agree on the Case for Cornwall - the powers and responsibilities that we would like to have. But that only works if you have a government that is actually listening and will properly consider the case made to it. We will have to wait and see.

If the Tories wanted this budget to showcase the things the Lib Dems stopped them from doing for 5 years, they couldn't have done much more.

UPDATE - North Cornwall Tory MP Scott Mann weighs in with his considered thoughts on the budget:




Tuesday, 7 July 2015

LOBOs - or how Cornwall council taxpayers are footing the bill for expensive borrowing

Cornwall Council taxpayers are footing the bill for expensive borrowing according to a Channel 4 investigation. Most of the borrowing dates back to the former county and district days and has been inherited by Cornwall Council. However there is at least one deal which was done by the former Conservative administration in 2011.

The sort of borrowing being talked about is known as a LOBO - which stands for Lender Option/Borrower Option - although this is a bit of a misnomer as the contract is heavily weighted in favour of the bank. And because such lending is over hugely long periods - often 50-60 years - significant changes in interest rates can mean the deal turns into a very bad one for the council and council taxpayers. So when the Bank of England's base rate moved from about 4% to less than 1% and lending rates also dropped significantly, it meant that borrowing at 7% or more suddenly looks like a pretty raw deal.

During my time as finance portfolio holder I was, of course, aware of the LOBOs and the various other investments and loans connected with the council. Cornwall Council inherited a large number of loans both in and out - mainly from the old county council, but also from the districts. There were also decisions made during the first Conservative administration and a massive deal done in 2011 to borrow £40m.

Tory councillor, and former leader, Fiona Ferguson is making a lot of noise about this issue at the moment. It's curious that Fiona does not mention that she herself was the finance portfolio holder for a time and that she appears to have done nothing during her term of office about LOBOs or anything else.

Many councils appear to have made investments and take on debt at a time when interest rates were significantly higher. Cornwall lent money to a number of councils at rates that seem now to be quite extraordinary. South Lanarkshire is paying somewhere north of 10% to Cornwall Council in a deal which is very beneficial for taxpayers here, but not so profitable for those in Scotland. As with the Icelandic bank investments, it was not just authorities in Cornwall who were taking on large scale and long term debts at interest rates that now appear to be very high.

My principle concern during my time as finance portfolio holder was to manage down the net debt. It was never as easy as simply writing off investments against borrowings as all had set maturity dates and there are huge penalties for early settlement. However, I set officers the task of trying to reduce the overall net debt through decisions when call dates came in (ie dates when settlements could be made without penalty) and to look at any early settlements that would have been worth the penalty. At a time when the council needed liquidity to be able to manage the on-going cuts to our budgets, it seemed to me important that we were not tying up large sums to finance borrowings. Council debts and investments are constantly changing and officers were able to make some changes which I believe have been beneficial.

Four times per year the cabinet member for finance is held to account by members on the issue of investment strategy either at cabinet meetings or full council and I was regularly asked by members why we did not take advantage of current low interest rates to borrow much more. Some suggested this money be used for paying off existing debt. My reply was always that we would consider it if we could, but the terms being offered by the banks were never favourable. They would have involved further LOBOs with the ability of the bank to raise interest rates to our detriment. And the 0.5% or similar low rate was only ever available for very short term borrowings which would not have helped at all. However, if officers had come across a means of re-financing which cut payments and did not come with any additional risk then I would, of course, have considered it.


Monday, 6 July 2015

Coronation Park bench fire

 Despite a big publicity drive by the police and lots of anger in the community, no one has come forward with information about those responsible for setting the Coronation Park bench on fire.

 If you have any information or saw anyone walking towards the park shortly before the fire then please contact the police by calling 101 or emailing 101@devonandcornwall.pnn.police.uk quoting crime reference CR/43481/15.

Time to change the law on car littering?

The Local Government Association has called on the government to change the law on littering from cars. At the moment it is hugely difficult to prosecute when someone throws litter from a car. Not only do you have to see it happen, but you have to identify who in the car is responsible and prosecute them as an individual.

Councils now want to change the law to match what happens in London where it is the owner of the vehicle who is responsible.

Cornwall relies on visitors for a huge section of its economy. And if our roads and verges are covered in litter then we run the risk of losing tourist business. So any change that makes it easier to fine (and thereby discourage) littering is good news.

But we cannot simply ask for a change in the law and expect everything to be better. The council also needs to sensibly use the powers it already has to investigate littering and fly-tipping and to prosecute where it can.

Ultimately, we need to explain to residents, businesses and visitors alike that littering costs the council (and therefore taxpayers) a lot of money which could be saved if people either used the bins provided or took their rubbish home with them.