Wednesday, 28 December 2011
In a sense, Cornwall is a pretty easy area to market to tourists. We have magnificent scenery, the best climate on the mainland and lots to do. But all too often we fall back on the caricature of bucket and spade holidays and surfing. The key task for Visit Cornwall should be to inspire people to come for more than the bits they know about already. That's something that the organisation is sometimes pretty good at, but not this time.
Take the main 'Cornwall from the Air' film above. Out of 42 different shots, there are only six that don't feature the sea. It may be our standout feature, but there's more to Cornwall than the blue bits and we should be trying to attract people for our culture, food, walking and inland scenery as well as surfing, sailing and sunbathing.
In addition to the main film there are also films of the North Coast, South Coast and West Cornwall - but nothing for East Cornwall. I am told that the footage was kindly donated by a partner and therefore the only costs involved were in the editing, but I still think it was a mistake to ignore the East.
So I have asked Visit Cornwall to come up with some ideas about how they can promote East Cornwall (and the inland bits elsewhere) over the coming year.
Saturday, 24 December 2011
Whatever the merits or problems of the stadium as a concept or on the basis of its location, it is right that this should be a decision taken in Cornwall and, so long as the decision is taken in a legally sound manner, it shouldn't be for the man in Whitehall to interfere.
Early in the New Year we are expecting the publication of the long-awaited and much delayed consultants' report on the business case for the stadium a well as moves towards a detaild planning application.
The good news is that the planning application was withdrawn and an application to give the land 'village green' status has been received and is now out to formal consultation.
If granted, village green status would recognise that the land has been used as amenity land for a long period and would give a great deal of extra protection against future development applications.
Congratulations to the local residents association for getting this far. I hope the change of status will occur early in the New Year to give local residents a fantastic belated Christmas present.
Thursday, 22 December 2011
The centre is being dumped by Cornwall Council against the wishes of local residents and the protests of the Liberal Democrats. Despite all the waste, the Conservatives refused to try to find the £62,500 per year it would take to keep the leisure centre operating normally.
Faced with the alternative of losing the leisure centre altogether, local people have put together a business plan and sought out various funding streams. The Sport England grant, which will pay for a biomass boiler and solar panels, is the largest, but there have been a series of others. Huge congratulations to Camelford Mayo Rob Rotchell, centre manager Richard Burke and the countless others who have contributed to this success.
Despite this success, the centre has had to cut services with operating hours cut and staff numbers dropping from 8 to 6. That is why the community management option is still seen as being the second best route to save the centre and why I have pledged to put forward an amendment to the budget in February to keep it as a full time part of the leisure trust rather than casting it adrift.
This initiative has been sparked by the Business Improvement District (BID). In Launceston we will soon be seeing a parking refund offer whereby shoppers can get their parking money back if they shop in local stores.
I'm glad that Cornwall Council is now more open to this sort of scheme. The recent report by Mary Portas on the state of the high street picked out high parking costs as one of the things that drives customers to out of town supermarkets.
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
The Chief Executive says in his message to councillors:
"I have been reviewing our organisational structure in the light of the Council's budget discussions and decisions, and in the knowledge that the UK's continuing severe and prolonged economic downturn will mean further pressure from Government on the public sector.
While we have made impressive progress in delivering efficiencies within the Council, there are undoubtedly further opportunities to reduce our costs even further.
I am keen that we develop a strategy for 'Place', which integrates our approach to living and working in and enjoying and sustaining the natural and built environment in Cornwall. This will require some changes to our structures and in recent weeks I have been discussing with the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT) the impact of the changes that have already been implemented and those that are anticipated.
Many of the recent changes have affected the Environment, Planning and Economy Directorate (EPE). In the last year accountability for the Alternative Service Delivery Project for Neighbourhood Services and for the Green Cornwall Programme transferred to the Communities and Chief Executive's Directorates respectively. We have just commenced a review of the management of economic development which will be moving to the Chief Executive's Department.In this context, I have discussed with Tom the possibility of a redundancy situation arising and to assist the organisation, he has agreed to take voluntary redundancy from his post as Corporate Director of EPE."
This announcement throws up more questions than it answers. Why is there yet another round of restructuring and reorganisation being announced in the week before Christmas?
If this has been planned for some time, why did neither the Chief Executive nor Leader even hint at it when they were interviewed by the Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee just a week ago? Was this a decision by the cabinet or by the Chief Executive and, if the latter, was the Cabinet even consulted before the changes were announced?
These continual reorganisations always have a cost and we think it should be made clear how much these changes will cost the Cornish taxpayer, both in terms of any pay-offs and any other costs that arise out of the continual rearranging of deck chairs.
The Environment, Planning and Economy Directorate is facing challenging decisions over public toilets, parking and buses amongst other things. But this change creates a vacuum at the head of the department when certainty is needed.
Finally, is this the end of the changes or is Cornwall Council to be in a state of permanent revolution?
Friday, 16 December 2011
It's not a simple issue and it has been a problem for Cornwall Council and its predecessors for many years. Over the past year performance has improved, but it's hard to see the amount of need disappearing any time in the near future.
To give you an idea of waiting times, the time taken simply to get an assessment has been cut from 118 working days to 60 working days - but that is still three months. Once the assessment has been done, the works themselves can take up to 310 working days on average to complete. That's the figure for the biggest jobs. The waiting time for the smallest jobs still averaged 160 working days.
As I said, the performance recently has improved and this could be something to do with more money being put into the service. This year the total budget is about £6.5 million compared with about £4.2 million previously.
But the amount of money due to be spent in the future is still under review. The service says it has an agreement to spend up to £10 million over the next three years and hopes to make a further £6 million of efficiency savings. But averaged over the three years, this is actually a cut. That's why I proposed a recommendation to the Cabinet asking for a minimum budget for each of the next three years equivalent to the current year's spend. Unfortunately this proposal was defeated by a single vote and a more watered down recommendation asking for 'enough money to be spent to meet need' was agreed instead.
This is an area which should be a priority for our council. If there continues to be a backlog and people are dying or being forced to move out of their home before the work is done then we will have failed.
Thursday, 15 December 2011
We have been putting together what is known as a town framework plan. It's the first stage towards a legally enforceable document to ensure that when a developer wants to build, it is the sort of development we want and in the place we want it.
We've had the support of experts in traffic management, the historic environment, infrastructure and utilities and we've conducted site visits to possible development areas. The final results have been put together and there will be a formal public consultation starting in the New Year.
As part of this, there will be a full day consultation in the Town Hall on Friday 20th January from 12 noon to 7pm. Everyone is invited to come along to have their say.
I think this was bowing to the inevitable - however much of a disappointment that might be for supporters.
Although I do not support the use of public money for a stadium, I fully support the ambition of the Pirates to be in the Premiership and that means having a suitable venue to play - a stadium with a much bigger capacity than the Mennaye could ever manage. Having the Pirates in the Premiership would be good for Cornwall (and even good for my team, the Cornish All Blacks).
Even with a deal involving using Home Park in Plymouth for a few games at the start of the season, the potential for having a stadium up and running within 12 months seemed ludicrously ambitious. So far only outline planning permission has been achieved and a huge number of key issues have been reserved. And we still have no idea how the construction will be funded. The financial woes of Truro City simply add to the confusion.
I am concerned that the key advocates of the stadium project, Cornwall Council (despite neither full council nor the Cabinet ever having actually voted in favour of the project going ahead) may be giving people false hope both about the viability and about the timescale. Mr Evans is far more realistic and I respect that fact that it is he who has sought to calm expectations.
One key line in Mr Evans statement stands out however:
We are also assured that the Business Plan for the stadium remains robust despite the doubt involving Truro City FC and their commitment.That business plan will be discussed by Cornwall Councillors in the New Year. I hope to be able to publish it sooner than that so that the public can judge for themselves whether it adds up.
Wednesday, 14 December 2011
New figures have revealed that around 6,200 households in North Cornwall - and over 33,000 across the Duchy - are entitled to some form of assistance with their fuel bills. That help is worth an average of £250 per household and a free helpline is available for more information.
The Home Heat Helpline is a free service that provides independent advice to people on low incomes on how to get help with their gas and electricity bills as well as other help such as grants for insulation or a new boiler. The number for the helpline is 0800 33 66 99 or you can visit www.homeheathelpline.org.uk.
"Over 6,000 homes across North Cornwall are entitled to some form of support. As the colder weather draws in, anyone who is concerned about staying warm should call the Home Heat Helpline and seek advice.
"I would also ask people to look out for neighbours, friends or relatives who may be in difficulty and make sure that they are aware of the helpline."
Christine McGourty from the Home Heat Helpline also advises people to think about what they can do around the home to reduce their energy consumption:
* turn radiators down in rooms which you only use occasionally
* draw curtains over windows at night to provide insulation for the room
* move furniture away from radiators and heaters to allow heat to circulate around the room
* open internal doors of any rooms which get more sun than others and let the warm air travel around your home"
According to the elections watchdog, there are as many as 6 million people allowed to register but who have not done so. Among the worst affected groups are 19-24 year olds (of whom 44% are not registered) and those who have moved house recently (of whom just 14% are registered).
The switch to individual registration is right because it will help to stamp out fraud, but it needs to be backed up by work to make sure that people register and, key to this, is the annual canvass. Stopping this the year before a general election will have a huge impact on the resulting poll.
The Electoral Reform Society comment on the issue is here and they have got it absolutely right.
The basic premise is that if 10% of constituents sign a petition for recall then an MP would face a by-election. But the government has inserted caveats that mean that the final decision will rest with MPs themselves in cases where the MP is not sent to jail (an MP sent to jail for more than a year is automatically disqualified). Apparently this is to avoid an MP being forced out unfairly or for 'political' reasons. I fear this will mean that MPs from a party (or coalition) with a majority in the House of Commons will be vulnerable but opposition or rebellious MPs would be more likely to face recall.
If recall is to happen, surely there should be a more objective set of rules governing the system. The 10% figures is clearly such a measure, as is the prison term. But there the robustness ends. Let's take the vacillations of MPs out of the equation. I would suggest that it be a matter for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to declare whether a breach of the rules is 'serious' (or some other term) and that this should be the means to trigger the recall procedure.
Tuesday, 13 December 2011
It won't shock anyone to hear that there were no startling revelations today. We heard again the claims about going early and also about the awards that are being won by the authority. The Chief Executive said that winning a single award might be a fluke but winning lots means the council are doing something right. (A commenter on Twitter reacted by questioning whether the best use of officer time was filling in application forms for awards rather than providing services.)
The interaction on twitter which has characterised a lot of Cornwall Council meetings really came to the fore today. With the meeting being webcast, there were lots of members of the audience ready and eager to have their say. One area where Cornwall Council is genuinely ahead of the game is in webcasting the meetings and publishing the comments made on the broadcast page.
Ironically, perhaps the biggest gripe came about the council's communications. In the meeting we were asking why the council often fails to get the response right first time. In the case of both the council credit card story and on the issue of the Chief Exec's expenses for going to London to attend an interview for a job councillors didn't think he should take, there was a perfectly good explanation. But this explanation was not what Cornwall Council put out to the media first time. I think that the council recognises that there are times when it doesn't get the comms right and the Chief Exec admitted that the bad publicity is usually of the council's own making. I thought that this was a bit more mature than the Leader's whinge early on that the local media never reports the good news.
On Twitter the demand from two local papers was for council bosses to make themselves more available to the media for interview. They claimed they never had the chance to question Cllr Robertson. I was able to pick this up and ask the Leader about it and he pledged that his door would always be open. I hope this is a successful outcome for both parties.
At one stage the Leader claimed that various (un-named) councillors who are new media savvy had repeatedly made false statements about the council and that he had a three page dossier of evidence to back this up. I'm not sure what 'facts' he has, but he reminded some of Rafa Benitez at his most paranoid when referring to his dossier on Alex Ferguson.
Another area of contention was the perception that the Council is 'Truro-centric'. This was brought up by my Lib Dem colleague Ann Kerridge. Rather to the astonishment of both audiences, Cllr Robertson asked what was meant by the term Truro-centric. He claimed that he regularly got out and about in Cornwall and that the authority was 'Cornwall-centric'. Via twitter, respondents from all around Cornwall seemed to take the view that the initial perception is just about right. Whether in Penryn, Penzance or Launceston, the feeling seems to be that the council is out of touch with local needs and feelings. I suspect that they even feel this in Truro.
Interestingly, I have just got an email from an officer telling me that both the Chief Executive and Council Leader have declined our invitation to come to talk to the annual meeting of the Launceston Community Network because they do not attend this sort of meeting. I would have thought that a leadership keen to prove that they care about the whole of Cornwall would have jumped at the chance!
I shouldn't try to pretend that there aren't some good achievements being made by Cornwall Council. There are lots of inspections and peer reviews that show that some of our services which were performing badly are now a lot better. And the Chief Exec told us that the council is twice as popular as the government (I'm asking for the details of that survey). But my guess is that although some key things are getting better, a lot of the services which the public think are important are being neglected - and that is where this administration will come unstuck.
If you want to know more or simply want to see for yourself, the meeting was webcast and will be available in archive to watch again (and again) very soon via the Council's website.
Ms Portas' key recommendations are to have affordable town centre parking and 'town teams' to improve the overall offer to visitors. One of the key reasons for the success of out of town shopping centres is that they combine shopping with other leisure activities. The US has known this for many years and most shopping malls have cinemas at their heart.
Cornwall Council is already doing some things very well. The town centre manager previously employed just for Newquay is now providing advice to towns across Cornwall. He gives thoughts on things like co-ordinated offers and town centre refurbishment and has provided good ideas for Launceston among other places.
But on other issues we are still heading firmly in the wrong direction. The key one is parking where Cornwall Council has insisted on yet another 3% rise in their overall take despite the disastrous performance this year.
I think Ms Portas is quite right to point out that traditional high streets are simply not an option for many shops today. A town like Launceston has lots of relatively small units. But the big stores need a large floorspace in order to make any money and so they are interested in out of town areas or not at all. Where our town can really succeed, however, is in its specialist shops. Philip Warren might be the most obvious example, but we have a wide range of independently owned businesses and the potential (hopefully) to attract more as well as some of the national firms that can fit into smaller spaces.
But what Ms Portas makes abundantly clear is that we need a co-rodinated approach to making our high streets work. We can't simply abandon them to 'market forces'.
Monday, 12 December 2011
Kensey Valley Meadow residents have really suffered with the ice and snow over the last two years. The hill out of the development means that even a small amount of cold weather can trap people in their homes.
With the road deemed too minor for Cornwall Highways to grit and no grit bins, residents have had no chance to escape once the ice or snow hits. As a result, many people had to miss work and cancel trips from relatives because they could not get out or in. One resident told me that it was like cancelling Christmas.
After two years of claiming that they had no responsibility, the developer, Elan Homes, agreed to provide grit bins this year and promised to fill them. But five of the six were only a third full and the last contained nothing but an empty bucket. I didn't think it was right to put local residents in jeopardy again and so I have paid for all six to be filled to the brim out of my highways budget. The photos show how Elan Homes left one grit bin less than a third full and how full it was after we had finished.
The people of Kensey Valley Meadow have had to put up with delay after delay in the adoption of their roads. The last thing they needed was another winter worrying what would happen if it snowed. Now the grit bins are all full and the Residents Association is in place to co-ordinate gritting the roads and pavements if the ice does come.
The photo at the top shows Residents Association Chair John Belsey (standing on the right) and Vice Chair Mike Childs (on the lorry) with me filling up one of the grit bins on the estate.
Saturday, 10 December 2011
Thursday, 8 December 2011
There will be a parade featuring camels, the town band and a samba band. There will be street stalls and a charity auction and there will be food and drink available. And you can do your Christmas shopping at the same time.
If you haven't been before, it's a huge party.
And the lovely people at the Town Council have announced that they won't be charging for car parking in the multi-storey car park after 4pm (the Cornwall Council car parks are always free after 4). So there's no excuse for not coming to join in the fun.
Last year I almost got gored by a reindeer. I'll try not to get trodden on by the camels this time.
The bill for consultants was £4.2 million for the month and another £1.4 million was spent on agency staff.
There is always likely to be some spending on consultants. It's unreasonable to expect the council to have every type of expertise within its workforce. So occasionally we need to buy in people who are, for instance, experts in railway law. But these should be contracts for hours or days, not for weeks or months at a time. And at a time when the Council is busy cutting bus services and threatening to close public toilets, the consultants cost seems particularly obscene. A single day's spending on consultants could save Camelford Leisure Centre twice over.
The same goes for agency staff. There are some areas of council work where a bit of flexibility is needed, but the current numbers are way more than they need to be and new people need training (at the Council's expense) before they can move into the front line. A high agency staff bill is usually a sign of lots of staff absence and sickness as well.
Far too many people employed as consultants or on agency contracts to do jobs you could get someone in Cornwall to do on a full-time basis for far less money.
Back in January, when Cornwall Council was spending a mere £70,000 a day on consultants and £30,000 on agency staff, Conservative Leader Alec Robertson promised new initiatives to cut the cost. And the Council's statement in response to these figures is to promise more of the same.
Liberal Democrats would name a single lead officer and a single cabinet member to take responsibility for spending on consultants and agency staff. We want to reduce the spending month on month and year on year.
UPDATE - The BBC online coverage of the story is here.
Wednesday, 7 December 2011
One of the major planks of the reforms are for the abolition of primary care trusts - the local(ish) level of bureaucracy which commissions services from GPs and local and general hospitals as well as other health providers.
In their place will come local commissioning groups which were meant to be led by GPs. With actual doctors on the ground being in charge, the hope was that there would be additional expertise and commissioning based on local knowledge and needs, not the target driven culture of the last government.
This week we have seen the amalgamation of two of the three Cornish commissioning groups as the smaller mid Cornwall organisation joined forces with the very large mid and west Cornwall group. The other organisation is the East Cornwall group which covers mainly the area of Cornwall that looks east to Derriford, Exeter and North Devon hospitals. The effect of this is that, rather than having lots of small local commissioning groups as was hoped, we have large organisations which could be remote from local needs and unaccountable to local people.
The big challenge though has been how to involve working GPs in the decision making. Nationally, it appears that many have chosen to withdraw as this survey by Pulse Magazine has found. The reason for their withdrawal appear to be the time commitment. As one former enthusiast for change told Pulse:
"When commissioning was announced it sounded like GPs would be able to do what they thought was right. But it has shifted to us being accountable here and accountable there and a whole lot of management speak. You never seem to be making any progress."But the new commissioning groups will still exist, so who is going to run them? Step forward the bureaucrats who have, until now, been running the Primary Care Trusts and other bits of the NHS that have been abolished.
Whilst the ambition of this part of the NHS reforms - to make commissioning more expert and accountable - was laudable, it appears to be falling apart already in some areas.
The clinics lost provide a very wide range of services including ear, nose and throat; rheumatology, dermatology and orthopaedics. If these services aren't available locally then patients have to travel to Derriford or Treliske to get them.
I have to give credit to Callington Town Council for digging up this information because the changes seem to happen with almost no publicity.
We want an NHS which provides high quality services which are accessible to people in their local hospitals wherever possible. As an example, I know of one patient in Bodmin who needs cataract surgery. She was told that she would have to travel all the way to Hayle to be given a pre-operative assessment and to Treliske for her operation, despite the fact that she doesn't drive. She was told that 'all pre-op assessments for cataracts are done in Hayle'. That simply isn't true and she has now been given an assessment and operation date in Bodmin - hugely more convenient for her. But her case shows that, all too often our NHS is concerned about target times rather than what is right for the patient.
We're calling on the local Primary Care Trust to guarantee the current clinics at Launceston Hospital and to tell us what other services they are putting in to our local facility.
Tuesday, 6 December 2011
There's this from Newt Gingrich:
Forgive me, but every time I see the hand waving through a corn field, I automatically think of the film Gladiator when that image was used as a metaphor for death. Is this what Newt wanted to imply?
At the other end of the scale is this effort from Ron Paul, the ultra-libertarian. It's based on an ad for a truck and so, presumably, is designed to appeal to 'all American' men:
The good news is that Launceston is among the first areas to see the roll out and that parts are already connected. It appears that the connected area is the top end of Western Road (the end nearest the A30) and at least part of St Johns Road. Tregadillet is also connected.
I wish I could give more detail about the extent of the area connected and when other areas might be switched on, but the Council won't say. If you want to check whether your home is connected, click here.
UPDATE - I've now been told that the extent of the connected area includes:
Tregadillet, Trebursey, Trevallette, Launceston – St Johns Road, Woburn Road, Castle Meadows, Western Road (end towards Pennygillam) and parts of Pennygillam (mainly Quarry Crescent and Pennygillam Way)
Friday, 2 December 2011
George Eustice and Oliver Colville have been asked by Conservative Central Office to find alternatives to Cllr Kennedy. According to the Western Morning News:
Mr Eustice, David Cameron's former Press secretary, said the party is keen for non-political figures beyond former MPs and councillors to take part in the primaries.
A senior officer from the Armed Forces was the kind of "independently-minded" candidate the party wants to come forward, Mr Eustice said.
In previous statements about the role, Colonel Tim Collins, the retired army officer likely to be the Tory candidate in Kent, told his party conference that the
role was not suitable for:
"sunset councillors or retired policemen with axes to grind"
At one stage the party even suggested that they would not be standing candidates at all.