Sunday 31 July 2011

The Asylum

There has been a lot happening in the last few days. Indian Queens Band Week has just finished with the carnival taking place yesterday. I was at Thursday’s Fete at the Blue Anchor, but missed the carnival as I was opening an exhibition at the Wheal Martyn China Clay Country Park (more about that in a future blog).

But later yesterday, I attended Kneehigh’s performance of “Midnight’s Pumpkin” at The Asylum, near Blackwater. It was a fantastic evening.

The play is a distinctive retelling of Cinderella and the players even invite the audience to take part in parts of the Ball. Most joined in - cue lots of enjoyable but dodgy boogieing and, at the end, playing with balloons.

If you get the chance to go – do take the opportunity and enjoy. You won’t regret it!

Thursday 28 July 2011

Councillors challenge need for bus service cuts

The proposal to slash funding of concessionary bus fares in Cornwall was discussed at yesterday’s Environment and Economy Scrutiny Committee.

The Cabinet Member for Transportation, Graeme Hicks, told members that cuts of over £2 million needed to be made. We also had representations from bus companies that the cut would lead to the loss of numerous services and less regular buses.

I was amazed that council officers were telling us that they were still “information gathering” but were clearly in talks with the bus companies about the percentage of concessionary fares that would be paid by the Council. It was clear that there seemed to be a lack of understanding of the implications of such cuts.

Members spoke out about the importance of Cornwall’s bus network, some called for the “shortfall” to be met from reserves, while others rightly railed against the lack of detail put in front of them.

I suggested that a proper “Inquiry Day” be held, with the bus operators, passengers and interested parties invited to attend to look at the detail more closely. This was agreed by members present.

Yet more double standards

Yesterday the Cabinet voted unanimously to push ahead with works “at risk” on the incinerator project – before the necessary revised project was agreed and before the outcome of the Section 288 challenge is known.

But, as promised, I would like to make one more comment on the Waste Panel meeting last week, when I challenged why the leadership of Cornwall Council had refused to work up a Plan B.

I quoted a recent response to members from the previous Full Council meeting which stated that the Council’s “existing waste policy was contained within the Waste Local Plan 2002. This Plan required the development of a single central energy from waste facility. Any movement away from this policy and the formation of a ‘Plan B’ could only take place once the planning appeal had been determined. It was only with the benefit of the specific reasons as to why a single central Energy from Waste facility would not be awarded planning permission that an appropriate Plan B could have been formed.”

At the Waste Panel, the Corporate Director broadly repeated this assertion, in effect stating that it would not have been appropriate to work up what might be termed a “departure” from adopted policy.

This did not go down well with frustrated members, who actually understood that one of the main reasons for the Waste Panel was to work up an alternative proposal. It was also a new excuse for months of stalling.

I also challenged the Director on his statement and pointed out that the leadership of the Council and the Corporate Directors were actively promoting a number of departure schemes for things such as large-scale housing and park and ride schemes around Truro. I asked when the Council would withdraw from such proposals.

I am also getting increasingly angry that the leadership of the Council believes that policy documents such as the 2002 Waste Local Plan stop us from working up alternative schemes. But other documents such as the 2002 Restormel Borough Local Plan and 2004 Cornwall Structure Plan are somehow out-dated and allow the Council to push alternative schemes.

What double standards.

Monday 25 July 2011

A lack of transparency at Cornwall Council

Last week, I was present at a meeting of Cornwall Council’s Waste Panel. It was certainly not a good advert for local government, or openness and transparency. The meeting was convened to update councillors on the “revised project plan” being worked up for the construction of an incinerator at St Dennis.

Some background first. Cornwall Council signed an “Intregrated Waste Management Contract” with SITA in 2006. The decision of the former County Council to refuse permission for the incinerator meant that works could not be commenced by March 2010. This triggered clauses in the Contract which meant that the Council could terminate it, if they wished, or ask for a revised project plan.

Cornwall Council’s Cabinet declined to investigate the option of termination and invited SITA to present a revised project plan. The Secretary of State also granted consent for the plant in June, while a group of people from the St Dennis area recently launched a 288 challenge against the decision. This will go to the High Court.

At the Waste Panel meeting, we were told that the Council had obtained a legal opinion from a QC that stated the challenge was unlikely to be successful. The recommendation was that work be started, “at risk,” on the purchase of land and the construction of roads. It would be “at risk” because it would be before the new plan is agreed or the outcome of the challenge known. The cost of these works was estimated at £3-4 million.

I asked scores of questions and sought to challenge much of what we were being told. First, I asked about the QC’s opinion and, as an elected member, requested to see the full document. I was told that it was confidential and I could not see it. So much for transparency.

When the progress towards the revised project plan was discussed, it was noted that the incinerator proposal was the same as the one agreed by the Secretary of State, but had been recosted and would now be considerably more expensive.

As much of the discussion was about cost, I asked the obvious question: how much would it cost to build the incinerator? I was told that the figures were not yet known.

So I pointed out that the report stated that SITA had identified a new preferred bidder (out of nine original interested companies) to build the plant and that they had been judged on a range of criteria including “value for money” and the “contract price.”

At this point, it was acknowledged that a likely contract price was therefore known but they were not going to tell us what it was anyway. So much for openness and democracy.

In spite of the lack of information, the majority of councillors at the Panel meeting voted to support works being commenced “at risk.” I was one of two councillors who took the opposite view.

The final decision will be taken by the Cabinet this week (Wednesday).

I have some further comments about aspects of the meeting, which I will blog about later. A range of briefing and discussions have also been held in recent weeks about housing numbers for Cornwall over the next 20 years. I have been meaning to blog about it for some time, but promise it will happen this week.

Friday 22 July 2011

Truro City Council by-election

MK candidate Lance Dyer polled 144 votes in yesterday’s by-election for a seat on Truro City Council (Boscawen). Compared to the last contest in this seat – a by-election in September 2009 – MK held its vote share almost exactly.

The seat was won by the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrat vote almost halved and Labour gained a large number of votes. The full result was as follows:

Conservative 469 (39.7% – up 8.9% from 2009)
Lib Dem 322 (27.3% – down 21.3% from 2009)
Labour 246 (20.8% – up 12.3% from 2009)
MK 144 (12.2% – up 0.2% from 2009)

Obviously we would have like to picked up more votes, but do feel we may have lost a number of votes because of a Conservative leaflet distributed in the last week.

The leaflet (see below) listed the candidates and had a comment about each. It noted that Lorrie Eathorne-Gibbons (Conservative) “lives in the ward and wants the best for Truro,” while Hanna Toms (Labour) “doesn’t live in the ward” and Kate Tregunna (Liberal Democrat) also “doesn’t live in the ward.”

But for Lance Dyer, the Conservative leaflet stated: “A Mebyon Kernow Councillor just joined Conservatives.” Obviously this refers to former MK councillor Loic Rich but it was written in such a way that many people interpreted it to mean that Lance had joined the Tories. All the other comments were personal to individual candidates and therefore people read the comment about Lance in the same way.

We first found out about the confusion when were even contacted by voters asking if Lance had joined the Tories.

I contacted the Conservatives about this issue yesterday and spoke to their election agent Bob Davidson and got nowhere. He said the leaflet was not misleading and not inaccurate.

For the record; the leaflet was shoddy and it was misleading because voters were mislead by it. And it was also inaccurate because Loic Rich was a former MK councillor when he joined the Conservatives.

We will certainly be looking to take this further and asking for an apology. I am not that hopeful however as we did not receive an apology when MK was misrepresented on a different Conservative leaflet in a Camborne by-election last year (see blog entry for 18 November 2010).

Thursday 14 July 2011

What about parity for the China Clay Area?

It has been another grim day at County Hall and I “threw my toys out of the pram” a couple of times. In truth, sometimes the frustration of being a member of Cornwall Council is just too much.

I was at the meeting of the Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee and the first item that got me going was an update on the rationalisation of “face-to-face” services. That is basically libraries and one-stop shops, which provide council services.

Much of the review could be applauded. Linking one-stop shops to libraries in a number of areas will help safeguard what can be provided, while new services from libraries in places such as Perranporth, St Agnes and St Just is to be welcomed.

But there was one glaring oversight which I felt I had to point out – as I have been doing for two years. And that is how Cornwall Council is failing to properly provide such services in the China Clay Area Network.

We have no permanent one-stop shop. Library provision is restricted to six hours a week in St Dennis School. There have been some attempts to have drop-in sessions in local halls, but these have been infrequent and under-resourced.

I accept that the China Clay Area Network does not have an obvious centre, such as a single town, from which to provide services. But there was a promise to convert a minibus into a mobile one-stop shop – which would have been cheaper than what is spent in other areas - but senior management pulled the plug on the project.

So, unlike other Network Areas, the China Clay Area has not had its fair share of spend on “face-to-face” services, staff and buildings, and has lost out – massively.

After a “rant” at the meeting, I moved that there be an investigation into why the Clay Area does not have the same levels of services as other areas in Cornwall. It was seconded by my good friend and fellow China Clay member, Des Curnow, and supported by the Committee.

Corporate Director Gill Steward has agreed to look specifically at what can be done in our area. Watch this space. And let us hope that we will see more progress in the next two years than has been managed over the last two.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Action on second homes

My article in today's Cornish Guardian focuse on the topic of second homes. It is as below:

Last week, the members of Cornwall Council unanimously backed a motion to seek the removal of the 10% council tax discount presently enjoyed by second home-owners.

Prior to 2004, the discount was a massive 50% but the last Government legislated to allow councils to reduce that discount to 10% if they wished.

From that time, Cornwall County Council and the six former district councils cut the discount to the minimum and used the additional revenue to fund affordable housing schemes across Cornwall. Sadly, this was an arrangement that did not survive the abolition of the districts and the creation of the unitary authority.

Last week’s motion rightly noted that with the “continuing recession and the demand on the public purse to provide frontline services … it would be unjust to allow second home concessions to continue.” It was resolved that Cornwall Council make representations to central government to both abolish the discount and endorse the use of the £1.6 million, that would be raised in Cornwall, for new affordable homes for local people.

There are over 14,000 second homes in Cornwall and their impact has been very damaging, leaving certain hamlets and coastal areas virtually uninhabited in winter months.

It is important that we put pressure on MPs on this issue, but it is about more than just levels of local taxation.

It is my view that it is simply wrong that wealthy individuals should have two or more homes, while many hardworking families cannot afford a first home in their local communities.

The rise in house prices to ridiculous levels, and by association the heightened cost of renting, has been caused by a host of factors. But that includes the growth of second homes and making a commodity out of that most basic human need to put a roof over one’s head.

We need far-reaching reforms to the planning system and the introduction of controls to reverse both the spread and number of second homes. Planning permission should be needed before homes can be turned into part-time residences, so that councillors have the ability to say no.

Mebyon Kernow believes that if more than 5% of the housing stock in a particular settlement and/or parish are second homes, there should also be an automatic ban on any new ones. And in such areas, properties used as second homes coming onto the market should only be allowed to be sold for use as permanent dwellings.

The big question is: will the multiple-house-owning politicians at the top of the main parties do what is right for the majority?

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Unfair elections?

Further to my earlier blog about the likely 2012 election for a Police Commissioner for “Devon and Cornwall,” I have today discovered that the deposit to stand will be £5,000. No doubt, the arrangements will mirror those of the European elections.

As MK supporters will be aware, in 2009, Mebyon Kernow stood a slate of candidates for the South West seat in the European Parliament. We polled 11,534 votes in Cornwall (7% of those cast).

Parties needed to achieve 2.5% of the vote to save their deposit of £5,000. However the powers-that-be refused to return our deposit even though we, as a Cornish Party, only campaigned in Cornwall achieved that percentage by a factor of three. Other parties such as the BNP standing and campaigning throughout the whole South West but achieving a lower percentage of the overall vote than ours in Cornwall, had theirs returned.

I do not know what share of the vote will be needed to save a candidate’s deposit this time around, but predict that there will be an arrangement that disadvantages MK and potential Cornish candidates.

Police Commissioner nonsense

I have just attended a meeting of the Electoral Review Panel, where we debated a number of issues including the likely forthcoming election for a Police Commissioner for "Devon and Cornwall" in May 2012.

It was an issue that I also covered in my column in this week's Cornish Guardian. It was as follows:

At the present time, the work of Devon and Cornwall Constabulary is overseen by a Police Authority made up of ten appointed councillors and nine independent members.

But this will all change if the Government gets its way. And it will be bad news for Cornwall.

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is slowly winding its way through Parliament and includes a proposal for a single, elected Police Commissioner to run each police area.

It also proposes that each commissioner would be scrutinised by a Police Board, once again comprising appointed councillors, but weaker than the current authority.

Many people, including representatives of police officers, have spoken out against the politicisation of policing.

I share this view and question how making police matters into an electoral football once every four years will benefit local communities.

I also consider it wrong that so much influence could be vested into the hands of one individual.
It seems to me that the legislation put forward by the Conservative-led Government has clearly not been thought through.

It specifies that the election of commissioners should be via a form of preferential voting. And yet, only weeks ago, the Conservative Party led opposition to the introduction of a similar voting system for elections to the Westminster Parliament. What double standards.

Cornish communities would also be at an electoral disadvantage, as the population of Devon is approximately twice that of Cornwall and our local interests could easily fall below those of our neighbours.

Most ludicrously of all, it is proposed that every principal authority in Cornwall and Devon should nominate one councillor to serve on the board.

This would leave Cornwall massively under-represented. Our 530,000 residents would be expected to make do with just one board member. The Council of the Isles of Scilly would also have one representative, for its 2,000 residents.

Devon (population 1,140,000) would meanwhile have 11 people on the board – one representative for each of Devon County Council, the two unitary authorities (Plymouth and Torbay), as well as the eight district councils (East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon, North Devon, South Hams, Teignbridge, Torridge and West Devon).

It has to be asked – how did the Government manage to come up with such a ridiculous proposal that can so distort the membership of the panel? Politicians from all parties are continuing to make representations on this issue and last week Cornwall Council formally wrote to the Home Secretary.

It remains to be seen whether central Government is listening and will act.

Monday 4 July 2011

How not to consider an issue

I know I cannot stop writing about waste issues, but …

This morning, I attended the latest meeting of the Council’s Waste Panel. The Revised Project Plan (which would need to be agreed between the Council and SITA before the incinerator could be built) was on the agenda.

The written report did not materialise. And at 10.00, we were told that there would be a verbal report. We were also told that the report could not be finalised because of legal implications arising from the challenge to the Secretary of State’s decision from the people of St Dennis.

As councillors, we were pretty unimpressed that a topic of such complexity could be presented in this way.

And then, the officer concerned actually took out a draft of the report – that we were not allowed to see – and promptly began to read out certain sections of it verbatim.

We objected to being kept in the dark and treated like children and the meeting was adjourned. We now await sight of the written report.

Eric Pickles, confusion and the farce that is planning

The Western Morning News on Saturday featured an article on Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities.

Written by Graeme Demianyk, it was titled: "Straight-talking Eric is Tory champion of responsible localism." But nothing could have been further from the truth and comments about 'localism' and 'his' decision to sanction an incinerator at St Dennis beggar belief. The relevant extract is as follows:

Some people have questioned his decision to approve an incinerator to be built in St Dennis in the heart of Cornwall, overruling widespread local opposition to the £117 million mass burner. He is clear he does not know the details of St Dennis, as decisions can be taken in his name. But he argues that there is no contradiction with his localism agenda.

“There’s no contradiction in something that has national importance. Localism is not about people being able to say ‘no’ to a piece of national infrastructure, or regional infrastructure, that has value to people outside their neighbourhood. Localism is about local people making decisions and accepting the consequences.”

So there we have it. The incinerator was given the go-ahead by civil servants acting on behalf of Mr Pickles, who clearly knows nothing about the plant. What a farce!

Friday 1 July 2011

Latest on the incinerator

Campaigners against the incinerator proposed for St Dennis have, this week, launched a legal challenge against the decision of Eric Pickles to approve the project.

I have not been involved in the preparation of the case, which is in the names of The Power of Cornwall, the Transition Cornwall Network and the Cornwall Sustainable Waste Network – all Rule 6 Parties at the recent Inquiry.

I understand that the challenge focuses on procedural issues relating to the Inquiry, the impact of emissions on Special Areas of Conservation within the vicinity of St Dennis and that these impacts have not been properly assessed.

But it is also the case that Cornwall Council still has to agree a Revised Project Plan with SITA, before construction of the facility can commence. There is plenty of speculation about the potential increased cost of the incinerator being in excess of £50 million.

At this point, I intend to use my position as a councillor to carefully question and challenge all aspects of the Revised Project Plan (RPP), including the cost.

I will be present at the next meeting of the Council’s Waste Panel on Monday, and the Revised Project Plan (RPP) is on the agenda.

However, the initial paperwork for the meeting was sent out over a week ago, with the RPP report listed as "to follow." As of 5.00 today, the report had not materialised and councillors are still waiting to find out details of the ongoing negotiations between the Council and SITA.

I am certainly not happy about this situation.

Rally on Lemon Quay

I attended the demonstration at Lemon Quay in Truro, which was organised in opposition to cuts to the public sector.

It was very well-attended and it was pleasing to see so many friends and MK members showing their support for workers in the public sector.

It remains important that we continue to fight the draconian cuts of the Con – Dem Government.

And it is important that we fight the Government’s determination to create a more unfair society, punishing public sector workers and less-well-off, while protecting their millionaire and banker friends.