Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Waste Panel Part Two (PM)

Councillors have recommended to Cabinet that they do not terminate the waste contract with SITA but instead should bring forward a Revised Project Plan.

I was very critical of the report which set out the view of council officers. Amongst other things, it claimed that the actual termination cost would be £35-50 million. The report also claimed that no alternative waste management facilities could be brought on stream until 2023 and this would cost Cornish tax-payers an extra £166 million. There was much in the report I did not accept and there were also plenty of omissions.

The option of a Revised Project Plan was described in very general terms and I made sure that one and all were clear that, due to procurement rules, this could only be a smaller incinerator in the China Clay Area.

I moved an amendment at the meeting that stated we “did not accept all the assertions within the report relating to cost, the planning context, etc;” “questioned the scope of the Revised Project Plan” and recommended to Cabinet that they “properly explore the option of termination, with further information brought forward as a matter of urgency.”

This was lost by nine votes to three. The three supporters of the amendment were myself, Roy Taylor (Lib Dem – St Blaise) and John Wood (Ind – Roche). Those members who opposed the amendment included 5 Conservatives, 2 Independents and 2 Lib Dems. The Chairman of the Panel, Cabinet member Julian German, did not vote.

The report now goes to Cabinet on 10 February, when I will be in attendance and making my views known.

Waste Panel Part One (AM)

At the meeting of today’s Waste Panel, we were presented with a report entitled Residual Waste Treatment Options from the consultants Fichtner. It looked at three sorts of alternatives to incineration and came up with the conclusion that a single incinerator in Mid Cornwall was the best solution.

I cannot say that I was happy with the conclusions or the content of the report and we spent the best part of two hours picking holes in the document. Costs of the different technologies were addressed but this was not based on detailed figures, I fundamentally disagreed with their interpretation of planning policy and so much more.

Two interested parties had critiqued the report and came up with dozens and dozens of concerns about the content and the assumptions behind many of their conclusions.

It was suggested that we somewhat uncritically note the report. I was not happy with this and moved an amendment that we “note the work carried out thus far, but agree that further scrutiny of the conclusions be carried out, in particular, in relation to costings, the various criteria used, issues raised at the meeting, as well as concerns raised by third parties.”

The amendment was carried by 8 votes to four.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Housing Strategy

Cornwall Council today adopted a Cornwall-wide Housing Strategy. It is a comprehensive document and one that I welcomed. I did however raise a number of issues about how the document could be improved.

I pointed out that, in many ways, Cornwall Council was being a strong critic of the Regional Spatial Strategy and the ridiculous housing numbers planned for Cornwall. But at the same time, there were documents such as the Housing Strategy which referenced the RSS uncritically and I this was unacceptable.

I made it clear that I did not want to see the Council allowing permissions for thousands and thousands of houses, with developers arguing that they cannot afford to do affordable housing because of the economic climate and sitting on the permissions until a later time.

I also used the opportunity to challenge council officers to be stronger in opposing housing schemes which masquerade as affordable housing schemes but are not. I brought the attention of the meeting to the evening meeting of the West Sub-Area Planning Committee which had an ‘affordable’ scheme up for approval. It included proposals for 3-bed properties priced at £137,000, with the owner also having to pay £20 a week rent for some equity retained by the developer.

There was agreement that this is simply not affordable and makes a mockery of our efforts to house local people on low incomes in housing need. I can report that the Planning Committee threw out the application.

Cllr Andrew Long

During the Allowances debate, my MK colleague Cllr Andrew Long (right) told the meeting that he would be resigning his job in order to be able to represent his home town of Callington as a full-time councillor.

As a single man, this means he will be living off his basic councillors’ allowance. Unlike me, he does not have a wife who works.

I am extremely proud that Andrew is a Mebyon Kernow councillor and I look forward to working even more closely with him in the coming months and years. While others may wish to play politics around the allowances issue, he is making a great personal sacrifice because of his commitment to win a better deal for Callington and Cornwall.

Councillor allowances

Today’s Full Council meeting at County Hall started at 10.30 and ended at about 3.45. Three hours were spent on the debate around councillor’s allowances, with the main focus being on the Independent Panel’s recommendation to increase the basic allowance from £12,128 to £14,600.

It was always going to be a difficult meeting. Many councillors have other incomes, such as pensions, but there are a number of councillors whose principal or only income is their council expenses. How do you come up with a system that fairly suits all?

At the same time, the independent report demonstrated that individual councillors spend differing amounts of time on council duties. One back-bench councillor claimed to only work 5 hrs a week – there was general outrage at this comment. Again, how do you come up with a system that fairly rewards the varied work carried out?

It is well-known that in order to stand for the new authority I had to give up my job at the Council. In making this decision, I had to consider the financial implications with my very understanding wife who subsidises what my father refers to as my “hobby.” The initial Lib Dem proposal for the unitary council specified that there should be 100 councillors each paid £18,000. That did not come to pass and the election was held to elect 123 councillors, to be paid two-thirds of the above amount, with an independent review to be carried out early in the new Council.

I did a ‘back of the fag packet’ calculation and assumed that the role would eventually attract an allowance of between £14,000 - £16,000

I stood in the full knowledge that the role of councillor would probably be full-time and I would do little or no paid work outside of my council duties– at least in the first instance. I also stood in the knowledge that, in order to represent my community, I would lose several thousand pounds income during each of the next four years.

But today’s debate was primarily about politics and not the role of councillors or their responsibilities and their time commitments. I think most people, myself included, would accept that £14,600 is not an inappropriate wage for what is a full-time job for many councillors, but I knew what the result would be before we even entered the Council chamber.

I was told, in advance, that the Conservatives were united in opposing the increase while the Liberal Democrats had a manifesto commitment to do the same. There was only ever going to be one result and the focus was very much on party political positioning for the coming election.

I found the whole thing incredibly uncomfortable and inappropriate and agreed with many councillors that we should not be put in the position to have to agree our own allowances. When it came to the vote, I decided to keep out of the political games and abstained.

Unsurprisingly, I have heard on the grapevine that my Liberal Democrat opponent in the forthcoming General Election is already trying to make political capital out of the fact that I abstained. If nothing else, it proves that the whole episode was indeed about political posturing.

For the record, the recommendation that I should receive an SRA (Special Responsibility Allowance) as Chair of the Planning Policy Panel was passed. I will receive £3,380 per annum for this and I will continue to receive about £400 as the MK Group Leader. I will therefore have an annual income of £16,000 for the coming year.

Also for the record, after the votes, the group leaders were invited outside to be interviewed by Radio Cornwall. I declined the media opportunity and stayed in the Council chamber in order to participate in the discussion on the Council’s housing strategy.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Cameron is 'Satin'

There are two large Tory 'election' billboards, including a picture of David Cameron, close to the railway station in Truro. One has been 'modified' by someone who is probably not a member of the Conservative Party. The actions of this person certainly made me smile, this morning, as I walked up the hill to County Hall.

Mr Cameron now has some large fangs and a 'devilish' tail. And to make matters clear, an arrow points towards him with the description 'Satin.'

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Golphin Farm, St Austell

At County Hall tonight, I attended the latest meeting of Central Sub-Area Planning to address the committee on the Golphin Farm application in St Austell.

The proposal from WainHomes proposed 107 new properties on land on the north side of St Austell. The site is outside of the development envelope of the town and lies within Treverbyn Parish. The case for the developer was that it should be approved as St Austell does not have a ‘five year land supply’ as sought by central government. Because the Council had failed to determine the application within the requisite time-frame, the applicant had gone to appeal and the Committee had to decide whether or not to contest the appeal.

The officer’s report recommended that we did not. It stated that there was only a 3.9 year land supply based on the present (unadopted) version of the Regional Spatial Strategy which wishes to see a ridiculous amount of housing imposed on the St Austell area. I used the meeting to challenge the officer’s approach to calculating the housing trajectory and his unwillingness to challenge the RSS figures or to consider other options. It got very technical!

In the report, the St Austell area was deemed to include St Blazey, Par and Tywardreath – but not any of the China Clay parishes, including the one that the site was located within!

It was also clear that the report was not seeking to apply policies relevant to Treverbyn Parish, but were uncritically applying policies produced for St Austell. The developer was offering 40% affordable housing, for example, as you would expect within St Austell – not the 50% that policies specify in Treverbyn Parish or the 100% affordable housing that can sometimes be achieved on land outside of development envelopes.

With a further Wainhomes application having already been submitted in this area for 1,300 new properties and over 2,500 new properties planned in the so-called eco-town just to the north, I think there was real concern about the scale of development that could happen in this area.

The councillors voted – I think it was unanimous – to contest the appeal.

The lack of an accommodation strategy

This morning, I attended a meeting of Cornwall Council’s Cabinet and spoke on an item entitled “Office Accommodation Vision.” I was not impressed with the report and said so!

In short, the report stated that an accommodation strategy would be “built around a hub and spoke model with three main hubs created in Bodmin, Camborne and Truro with satellite offices across the remainder of the county.” It added that the 78 existing offices would be reduced to thirty, though there was no detail.

The main focus of the report was to agree refurbishments and improvements at New County Hall in Truro and Dolcoath Road, Camborne, and to agree the development of a business case for a new office set-up in Bodmin.

I asked a number of questions. What was the overall vision? What offices would be closed and which ones would be kept in use? Which services would be based in which offices?

As an example, I asked about planning. There are three planning areas but it is still being run from six former district council offices. My questions were whether this would continue or whether planners would in the future be primarily based at three offices. And if this was the case, which offices they would be.

I specifically asked about the St Austell offices, identified as important in the St Austell Strategic Investment Framework, and their future. Those of us who used to be Restormel councillors understood would it be a hub for the central area, with Truro as the main centre.

All the people who were present at the meeting will confirm that I got no meaningful responses to my questions.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Happy New Year to one and all

The break is over and I am back at the “day job” at County Hall.

The first week of January saw (as much as the snow allowed) a series of scrutiny meetings to assess the administration’s draft budget. I could not get in everyday, but did manage to attend two of the scrutiny meetings.

As a back-bencher, I have been quite critical of the budget-setting process so far. We have had to sit through a number of briefings where we were asked to identify our “priorities” while not being presented with the necessary background or financial information on which to base a meaningful discussion.

There was more information available for the scrutiny meetings, but still not enough. There was question after question about what was planned and a lack of clarity as to how "savings" might be made. I raised concerns that there was an expectation that certain parts of the budget would experience a reduction in expenditure of 7-10% for each of the next four years. When I asked how and where the savings were expected to come from, the most frequent response was that this was still being worked out.

As a representative of the China Clay Area, I queried why there was still capital expenditure identified for the construction of the incinerator – but not for the potential termination of the waste contract. I was told that this was because the decision whether to terminate or not had yet to be taken. Strange that, as the possibility of fortnightly waste collections was noted even though the decision on that had not been made either.

I also made representations on the issue of community grants to ensure local groups could still get decent levels of financial support, I spoke against unfair increases in council charges and in a range of other areas. More updates soon.