Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The "Pasty Tax" and the West Cornwall Pasty Conpany

My article in this week’s Cornish Guardian looks again at the impact of the Coalition’s “Pasty Tax.” It is as follows:

It is almost exactly two years since hundreds of people marched through the streets of Falmouth – in truly appalling weather – to protest at the Coalition’s “Pasty Tax.”

Readers of the Cornish Guardian will remember how, in his 2012 budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer came up with a “half-baked” scheme to impose 20% VAT on hot food such as sausage rolls or pasties.

You may also recall that the Chancellor was ridiculed for telling “hard-pressed Brits” to “avoid his VAT hike on hot food by buying cold pasties.”

Opposition was widespread and it was pointed out, time and time again, that it would have a damaging impact on businesses and jobs – especially in Cornwall.  

Central government did partially back down and in the process redefined what it considered to be a “hot” pasty. It announced that pasties sold on shelves, while cooling down to an “ambient temperature,” would not be liable for VAT. But VAT would be charged on pasties kept hot in special heated cabinets.

Local MPs and activists from the Coalition parties were clearly relieved with the limited climbdown and merrily trotted out the line that we were lucky to have a Government which “listens to what people have to say” and doesn’t always “plough on regardless.”

At the time, Stephen Gilbert MP claimed there would be “dancing in streets from Land’s End to the Tamar” while Sheryll Murray said she was pleased that there was not going to be an “army of thermometer-wielding tax inspectors poking our pasties” worrying about the “vagaries of ambient temperature.”

But, in spite of the limited u-turn, the impact of the “Pasty Tax” is doing great harm.

Last week, the West Cornwall Pasty Company collapsed into administration. Much of the company – 34 of the existing 65 outlets – was bought out by a private equity fund, but 92 jobs have already been lost.

The previous owners blamed the introduction of the “Pasty Tax” for their financial problems, which they had to pay because they deliberately keep the food hot.

Although based in Buckinghamshire, the West Cornwall Pasty Company was set up by a Cornish family and, because of the protected status of the dish, all the firm’s pasties are made in Cornwall at Penryn.

It is unacceptable that Cornish jobs continue to be under threat because of the “Pasty Tax,” and Coalition MPs should be doing more to get it fully abolished.  

Government bungled Royal Mail sell-off

I have just realised that I had neglected to post my article in last week’s Cornish Guardian. It was as follows:

A few months ago, I was among a large number of people who condemned the privatisation of the Royal Mail by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition.

I did not support the sell-off in principle, but I was particularly angry that the shares were under-valued and that two-thirds of them were sold to “institutional investors,” including “sovereign wealth funds” in foreign countries, investment banks and hedge funds.

An investigation has now been carried out by the National Audit Office (NAO) and I am pleased that their report has rightly condemned the Government’s chaotic handling of the sell-off.

The NAO has confirmed that the shares were under-priced and, as a consequence, £1.4 billion was lost to the Treasury.

Six months before the sale, some “experts” had suggested a sale price of 867p while others, just days before the privatisation, had valued the shares at 510p.

The shares were actually sold at 330p each, and within eight weeks, the shares had increased in sale price to 600p.

One journalist put it very succinctly: how would you feel “if you sold your home for £330,000 on the advice of an estate agent, then found the buyer offloading it just weeks later for £600,000 … you'd feel pretty sore.”

As a British taxpayer, I do “feel pretty sore” and I am sure many of you share my dismay.

It seems that the Government was advised by “financial advisory and asset management firm” Lazard and Co., which pocketed fees of £1.5 million, while a syndicate of investment banks was also involved and received a further £11.2 million.

The NAO report has also revealed that peference was given to sixteen, as yet unnamed, “priority” investors, which the Government insisted would keep the stock for the long-term. But these “investors” were allowed shares originally valued at £728 million, but they had sold off nearly half of these shares within a matter of weeks for an obscene profit at the expense of the general public.

Many newspapers reports have concluded that the Government “could have achieved better value for the public” – how politely put – while leading members of the Coalition, such as the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary Vince Cable have attempted to downplay the controversy.

Mr Cable even claimed that “achieving the highest price … was never the aim of the sale” – but the reality is that his Government bungled a sale which they should never have sanctioned in the first place.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

How about some fair television coverage for MK!

Political parties need media coverage to promote their policies and to make electoral headway. Mebyon Kernow members certainly work extremely hard trying to gain publicity and we have numerous successes in the local print media, while I am very fortunate to have a weekly column in the Cornish Guardian.

We also have reasonable coverage on local radio, but struggle to get coverage on either local or UK-wide television.

Over the last ten days, following my appearance on the Politics Show, I have had numerous comments from local people about the coverage. I have noticed this before and it shows how so many members of the public give greater credence to individuals and organisations that receive significant coverage on television.

Then, of course, there was the W1A programme.

And today, by coincidence, MK received a letter from the BBC concerning election broadcasts for the forthcoming European elections.

MK is not standing in these elections because the electoral process is unfairly rigged against Mebyon Kernow (see previous blog post from 11th October 2013) and this was, once again, borne out by the BBC’s guidelines for election broadcasts.

It states that, in Scotland, “political parties which are standing a full list of candidates in Scotland will qualify for a minimum of ONE broadcast in Scotland.”

It also states that, in Wales, “political parties which are standing a full list of candidates in Wales will qualify for a minimum of ONE broadcast in Wales.”

But in England (sic), “political parties which are standing a full list of candidates in each and every region in England will qualify for a minimum of ONE broadcast in England.” 

How unfair is that. To be allowed a party election broadcast, MK would have to stand in all (nine) euro-constituencies in England – an absolute nonsense – whereas “national” parties standing in the (single) Wales and Scotland – such as Plaid Cymru, SNP, Scottish Socialist Party, etc – would be allowed their own broadcasts. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

My latest monthly report to St Enoder Parish Council

At tonight’s meeting of St Enoder Parish Council, I tabled my latest monthly report. It covered the period from 21st February to 21st March. It was as follows:

1.         Council meetings

I have attended a range of meetings over the last month. These included: Full Council; Cabinet; Environment, Heritage and Planning Portfolio Advisory Committee (PAC) (plus three associated pre-agenda briefings/meetings); Homes and Communities PAC; Constitution and Governance Committee (plus an associated informal meeting); and the China Clay Area Network.

I also attended a briefing on welfare reforms and a further meeting with the new Chief Executive and the leader of the Council. As Chairman of the Environment, Heritage and Planning PAC, I was present at a Conference event run by the new Local Nature Partnership.

2.         Other meetings

I also attended two meetings of the Clay Country Local Action Group, as well as a meeting of the Community-led Local Development & Leader working group (which I chair), and the local Governing Board of Summercourt Academy.

3.         Extra land for Indian Queens School

I am pleased to be able to report that Cornwall Council has agreed to swap land at a former school site in Camelford in exchange for the field next to Indian Queens School (owned by Ocean Housing).

The report stated:

“Due to an increase in projected pupil numbers, Indian Queens School has been identified as requiring a significant expansion of its built campus and sports facilities. In order to implement this project further, land will need to be acquired which is contiguous with the school campus. The Council has engaged with the landowner, Ocean Housing, and has negotiated a land swap arrangement which involves the disposal of the former Camelford Primary School owned freehold by the council.

“The commercial terms that have been agreed generate a capital receipt for the Council, enable a high priority expansion of Indian Queens School to proceed and bring forward a mixed tenure housing development in Camelford.”

The Cabinet was unanimous in its support for the initiative.

4.         Council tax

At the Full Council meeting on 25th February, the members of Cornwall Council voted to put up council tax by 1.97%. This was just below the 2% threshold which would have forced the Council to put its proposal out to a costly public referendum. I supported the increase because it was my view that the Council needed to do what it could to offset the massive cuts in grants from central government.

5.         Reduction in library opening hours

The ruling Cabinet at Cornwall Council has announced a reduction in opening hours at local libraries in order to meet budget cuts of £400,000, which I have personally contested.

The 12-week consultation on the cessation of all mobile library and mobile one stop shop services is continuing, and I have made strong representations against the loss of the Clay Bus at the most recent China Clay Area Network Meeting and also at Full Council.

6.         Letter from China Clay Area Network Meeting

In co-operation with the Network Manager of the China Clay Area, I recently drafted a letter which addressed local concerns about the inequitable provision of council services across Cornwall. At the meeting of the China Clay Area Network on 24th February, the letter was endorsed by all Cornwall Councillors and parish councillors present, and it was agreed to send it to the Chief Executive, Corporate Directors and the members of the Cabinet.

The full text of the letter, which was in my name, was as follows:

Delivery of Council Services in the China Clay Area

I have been asked to write to you concerning service delivery in Clay Country by the China Clay Area Community Network.

The network consists of the five parishes of Roche, St Dennis, St Enoder, St Stephen-in Brannel and Treverbyn; and it is served by myself and Cllrs Curnow, Greenslade, Luke, Rix and Wood.

The delivery of customer-facing services from Cornwall Council appears predicated on the hub model, where a town often acts as a local service centre for a surrounding rural area.

This may work well in parts of Cornwall where the economy was formerly based on agriculture. But in our area, there is no natural “centre” and communities are smaller and dispersed – reflecting a 19th and 20th century settlement pattern, created at a time of the widespread extraction of china clay and other minerals.

We believe that, through this model, the China Clay Area has lost out and, with the ongoing cuts from central government, it will continue to lose out in comparison with other parts of Cornwall.

Since the creation of the unitary authority, Clay Country has never had a permanent One Stop Shop. A mobile One Stop Shop – combined with an enhanced library provision – was launched in October 2012. But it is clear to local members that this service is now under threat and there is little evidence that the Cabinet or wider Council would wish to retain the service.

Local members would also question whether the China Clay Area – as a result of its distinct demographic and geographic profile – gets its fair share of central expenditure from Cornwall Council.

The five Parish Councils in the area are particularly active and are responsible for a wide range of services, including playing fields and play areas, open spaces, allotments, cemeteries and business units.

But there is a strong perception that service provision from Cornwall Council is limited in comparison. 

We would note that the China Clay Area has had a poor service from Civil Enforcement as officers focus on areas of greater population, while local members receive repeated complaints about issues such as the limited extent of street cleaning and lack of waste bins in local villages – compared to urban centres.

At the same time, local residents are aware of the “double taxation” issue, namely that that they are contributing to Cornwall Council’s share of the council tax, which is being used to provide services in other parts of Cornwall, that are provided by Parish Councils closer to home.

It is view of the Community Network that Cornwall Council needs to undertake a full assessment of how it provides services – geographically – across Cornwall, so that it can identify those Networks and communities, which receive less than average expenditure. This will also allow the Council to be more informed when it makes decisions about future investments, service delivery and the devolution of services.

It is ironic that whilst Cornwall Council Members and officers travel to London seeking from central government a fairer settlement for rural authorities, the unitary authority does not appear to “rural-proof” the distribution of its own services across Cornwall.

After all, council tax is uniform across Cornwall. So it is important that the 26,000 people of Clay Country do receive a reasonable parity of council expenditure.

7.         Patching at Highgate/Gaverigan Roundabout, Indian Queens

In February, I reported that Cormac had carried out some temporary patching of the worst pot-holes at Highgate/Gaverigan Roundabout near Indian Queens, and that the resurfacing of the roundabout was timetabled for May.

I have received the following update from Robert Hancock at Cormac:

“There has been considerable correspondence on this topic over the past few weeks, resulting in the present proposal for the works consisting of:

“24hr closure of the Treviscoe road for 5 days and 4 nights commencing Tuesday 5th May.

“Night time closure of the B3279 from 1900hrs to 0700hrs.

“The B3279 will remain open through the day. However, traffic will be shuttled through the roundabout by means of temporary traffic signals.

“The official diversion route for the closure is via St Stephen to the A3058 to Brighton Cross then north on the B3275 to Fraddon before joining the A30.

“We have been in communication with Sita representatives, Matt Ives and Michael Dobson. They are aware that access to the CERC via Stamps Hill/Gaverigan will not be possible for the period of the closure and are rescheduling their works accordingly.

“The restrictive size of the roundabout and the amount of reconstruction works required does not allow us to provide for traffic whilst these works are undertaken. In an attempt to reduce disruption to a minimum, Cormac intend to double shift our workforce, working day and night for the period of the closure.”

8.         Closure of road bridge near Perrose and Retyn

In February, I reported that a road bridge near Perrose and Retyn had been undermined by the amount of water in the river beneath it. I have recently received the following update from Cormac: 

“As you are aware, we have closed the road at Retyn Bridge due to it falling into an unsafe condition … unfortunately some of the local residents have been persistently moving the signs and barriers and driving over the bridge.  Therefore, it has become necessary to place concrete barriers at either side of the bridge to prevent unauthorised access and to protect highway safety.”

I am continuing to lobby officers for the repairs to be undertaken as soon as possible.

9.         Corporate Directors at Cornwall Council

The New Chief Executive Andrew Kerr, with the support of the Council’s Cabinet, has decided to reduce the most senior “Corporate Director” posts at the unitary authority from six to three. I have been appointed to the panel which will appoint the individual who will be responsible for issues related to the economy and the environment.

10.       Gypsy and Traveller Strategy

A new Gypsy and Traveller Strategy was agreed at the Cabinet meeting on 12th March. I had made representations at previous meetings of the Homes and Communities PAC, pointing out the disproportionately high provision of residential pitches in the China Clay Area and the former Restormel.

The figures show that, since 2006:

A total of 115 pitches had been consented within Cornwall.

Of these, 71 residential pitches had been consented in the area of the former Restormel Borough Council. This equates to 62% of the pitches consented for the whole of Cornwall – even though the area is approximately one-sixth of Cornwall.

Since 2006, 43 residential pitches had been consented within the China Clay Area. This equates to 37% of the pitches consented for the whole of Cornwall – even though the population of the China Clay Area is less than 5% of that of Cornwall.

As a consequence of the intervention of myself and other colleagues from the China Clay Area, changes were made at the PAC and endorsed by Cabinet. Changes included the following:

“In response to the consultation on the earlier draft Travelling Communities Strategy and Delivery Plan (published December 2012), a number of Parish/Town Councils and individuals expressed concern as to the uneven distribution of existing, approved, or planned sites, in particular with regard to the concentration around the former Restormel area. In preparing the DPD, the Council will need to address local needs and historic areas of need/demand. However account should be taken of the concentrations of recent developments. This should seek to ensure a provision of sites outside of these areas to ensure a reasonable Cornwall-wide spread looking at local needs.

“Further development of Gypsy and Traveller sites outside the towns and villages in the St Blazey and Clay Country Community Network Areas where recent supply has been focused, should be restricted to those with a clear local connection to reduce potential domination of the character of the area.”

11.       Appeal statement on proposed solar farm at Burthy Farm   

As previously requested, I have completed a detailed (3,500 word) statement on behalf of St Enoder Parish Council which was submitted to the Planning Inquiry (written representations) for the above application.

12.       Appeal statement on proposed wind turbine at Chytane Farm  

As previously requested, I have completed a detailed (4,000 word) statement on behalf of St Enoder Parish Council which was submitted to the Planning Inquiry (written representations) for the above application.

13.       Consultation on draft Supplementary Planning Document
            on affordable housing

As previously requested, I have completed a detailed response to the above consultation on behalf of St Enoder Parish Council. It has been submitted to Cornwall Council.

14.       Meetings about Youth Club and Neighbourhood Plan

Along with other fellow parish councillors, I have attended two meetings about progress with the St Enoder Youth Club (which included a get-together with the youth workers Dan James and Laura Kinsley-Potter), and a single meeting of the Neighbourhood Plan working group, where we debated the likely content of a parish-wide questionnaire.

15.       Penare Farm anaerobic digestion (AD) plant

Work on the AD plant started in the week commencing 10th March. The developers are presently agreeing the “pre-commencement” conditions related to the project, which will include details of regular engagement with the local community and the Parish Council. I have been in contact with representatives of the developer and would suggest that an invitation be extended to them to address the next meeting of the Parish Council.

16.       Newsletter

My six-monthly newsletter (dated January / February) has been distributed to around 95% of homes in the Parish. Much of the distribution was delayed because of the bad weather, and I was not able to get around to all the rural parts of the Parish.

17.       Cornwall Council Has (not) Got Talent

Earlier this month, I joined a number of fellow councillors and staff from the Democratic Services section and took part in the annual Cornwall Council Has (not) Got Talent competition, which raises money for Children in Need. Our entry was a troupe of dancers, who performed to traditional Cornish music. Naturally, the boys were dressed as girls, and vice versa, and I have had it on good authority I did not look good in a brunette wig.

18.       Inquiries

Throughout the last month, I have also helped numerous people with advice and guidance. Issues included flytipping, housing concerns, planning matters, the condition of local roads, etc.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Cllr Andrew Long to fight South East Cornwall

I am delighted to see that my good friend Cllr Andrew Long has been selected to contest the South East Cornwall seat for Mebyon Kernow – the Party for Cornwall at the next General Election.

As well as being an experienced councillor – he represents Callington on the unitary authority and he has been a town councillor since 1999 – Andrew has a fantastic track record of winning a better deal for his home town and surrounding areas.

He has been a fantastic champion for South East Cornwall for many years. Andrew would make a great MP and I sincerely hope that local people will throw their weight behind his campaign.