Sunday, November 29, 2009

Breaking the link

I support a fully elected second chamber, and that is what I will vote for if I am elected as an MP. In a democratic and multi-faith society, where there is a political consensus that reducing appointed quangocracies is part of the modernising that British politics needs to do, it is important to break the link between all peerages and a seat in the UK's second chamber. This is possible within the White Paper published in July 2008 - legislating to implement this is long overdue.

The Queen's speech commitment is to introduce a draft Bill in this Parliament - that means it will not be enacted before the next election, which is why I say how I would vote as an MP. I once had a conversation about House of Lords reform with Cornwall's former Bishop Bill, who put the argument for a proportion of appointed peers, but he didn't persuade me; even though, as a member of the House of Lords elected through the Church of England, he was an instinctive democrat in the arguments he voiced on Cornwall's behalf.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cornwall's democratic conundrum - you decide

The move to a new unitary authority had some vocal critics. The Liberal Democrats tried to counter these partly by suggesting it might lead to devolution of more powers to Cornwall. I would welcome that.

Enter the new chief executive, Kevin Lavery, who in January this year warned members that the former Cornwall County Council was on the brink of Government intervention. Calls for the then Liberal Democrat leader to resign were faced down.

This is Cornwall's democratic conundrum - would our elected representatives rather make decisions locally, with the accountability that brings? Or carry on collecting their allowances, while blaming 'Whitehall bureaucrats' and the 'London Parties' for local service decisions it is within the Council's powers to make.

Take three issues:
(1) Waste management - there will now be a completely unecessary, costly public enquiry to inform a decision which will be made by the Secretary of State. This stems from the failure of the Liberal Democrats to develop and implement a locally workable approach when they were elected in 2005.
(2)  Children's services - given the child protection concerns uncovered by Ofsted, I welcome the creation of the improvement Board overseen by Children's Minister Dawn Primarolo MP, but it should never have reached this point. The new Board was reported in a local newspaper on Thursday 12 November, and by the BBC twelve days later (yesterday). It is strange but true that a member of the children's scrutiny committee is now twittering in the blogosphere that nobody told him - he heard it first on BBC news this morning.
(3) Transfer of upper-GI cancer services to Derriford. Enter the not-so-independent Tory Chair of the Council's NHS and Adult Care scrutiny committee, who has called a special meeting and appears to be trying to steer the local service decision onto the Secretary of State.

People in Cornwall deserve better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Stop Truro's clocks

Truro's Logistics Corps staff sergeant Olaf Schmid was laid to rest here today with full military honours.

Truro stood still to mark the passing of an extraordinarily courageous person who described the purpose of his job defusing improvised explosive devices as saving lives and gathering forensic evidence to convict criminals.

Three months ago, after being contacted as a prospective MP, I signed up to support the Royal British Legion's 'do your bit' campaign. Yesterday I visited the Citizens Advice Bureau in Truro, where I learned amongst other things about the excellent work for ex-services personnel by the Royal British Legion's benefits and money advice service in Cornwall.

Today in Truro, Olaf Schmid's widow Christina called for more support for those serving in our armed forces - regardless of political views. As a politician, I heard loud and clear her challenge for those in Government to work hard for peace.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Who do you trust on Cornwall's economy?

On Saturday, Truro was busy with shoppers. It reminded me that almost a year ago Woolworths closed - the shop now occupying the former Woolworths store in Truro seemed to be doing a brisk trade. However, in Falmouth the former Woolworths store has not yet re-let. The recession is affecting people, places, and businesses in different ways, even within Cornwall. Some places may turnaround more quickly than others, but the latest data suggests Labour's active measures to stop the economy nose-diving into depression are working, and that Labour's real help for people is making a difference.

The local evidence to support this?

1. The new constituency of Truro and Falmouth covers the former Carrick District Council area except for Mount Hawke ward. To enable comparisons over time, the Office of National Statistics still publishes some data for 'Carrick'. The latest unemployment data shows that in October 1,492 people locally were claiming Job Seekers Allowance. This is 2.7% of local people of working age, compared to 4.1% nationally. Three quarters of people who are known to be seeking work are claiming JSA. This is similar to numbers in January 2009 - the number of people out of work fell during the summer season. For every one of the people seeking work, it's an exceptionally difficult time. Despite the recession, long-term unemployment (more than 12 months) is around one quarter what it was in October 1996 before Labour defeated the last Tory government.

It is Labour's investment in Falmouth and Truro which has helped to make that difference. That investment needs to continue through convergence and other funding to maximise new jobs in renewable, digital, and creative industries.

2. Housing. For those waiting for social housing in Cornwall - 3,400 households in Truro and Falmouth - much hangs on the success of Cornwall's bid for new council housing, and other positive future action by the Council. Tucked away at the end of this newspaper article is the news that - thanks to Government action to keep people in their own homes during the recession - the repossessions forecast for this year is now 48,000 rather than 75,000 - and that at 1990s repossession rates, that would have been 91,000. I hope the Treasury will invest more in new council housing as Housing Minister John Healey MP is asking - construction also helps to keep people working. The repossession numbers show how important it is that people facing mortgage difficulties and the frightening prospect of being made homeless find out what help is available - you may be able to keep your home.

Most people will welcome the new legislation to stop fat cat bonuses and ensure that the mistakes and excessive risk-taking of the financial sector are not repeated. Many people would also accept or welcome a new tax on financial transactions such as buying and selling shares - sometimes called the 'Tobin tax'.

There is a need to pay down debt, and Labour's commitment to halve the UK's deficit during the next four years demonstrates seriousness of purpose. I am not going to second guess what will be in the coming pre-budget report. What I want to see for people in Cornwall is continuing investment in jobs and homes, and protection for the lower paid and those like pensioners who are on fixed incomes.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A burning issue

Cornwall's waste management should never have reached this point.

Cornwall Council is in what can only be described as a lose-lose situation in relation to proposals for a centralised incinerator. A public enquiry, and ultimately the Secretary of State, will now adjudicate between it's former planning and waste decisions (which, coincidentally, have been brought together in a single department at the new unitary authority).

Let's start at the beginning. There has already been a public enquiry into a proposed incinerator for Cornwall's waste. It recommended that the previous proposals for an incinerator did not go ahead, and also that Cornwall should develop an integrated municipal waste strategy. Cornwall's seven former Councils failed to do that, instead pursuing six different District approaches to recycling and waste collections, while the County Council continued to rely on landfill for its waste disposal.

French social historians like to write about what they call the 'longue duree' in history - focusing on long-term continuities rather than the dramatic short-term events of politics and wars which they term 'eventual history'.

There are those who would say that the 'longue duree' of Cornwall's waste management are the officers at County Hall. Following the previous public enquiry, proposals for an incinerator resurfaced in the run up to the 2005 local elections. The then NOC Cabinet approved issuing tender documents for a 30 year waste management contract which included incineration. They did so without the support of Labour Councillor Jill Ferrett, who was a member of that Cabinet. During the 2005 local elections, Labour ran a petition calling for genuine, open consultation on Cornwall's waste management plans.

There was a golden opportunity when Liberal Democrats formed the next Council, with a promise of a more consultative style, to reconsider the agreement by the previous NOC Council before issuing the waste management contract. In 2005, the Liberal Democrats five recently elected MPs issued a press statement opposing plans for an incinerator. All Labour county councillors voted against the proposed incinerator. Against vigorous public opposition, the Liberal Democrat led Council ploughed on and awarded SITA the contract. Negotiations on detailed terms included a contractual obligation to a centralised incinerator that had no planning permission; that permission was then refused by Cornwall County Council in the run up to the 2009 local elections.

The golden legacy left by the Liberal Democrats for the new unitary authority's waste management is dead cert landfill tax and legal bills, with the Council liable both through it's contractual obligations to SITA, and for the costs of defending it's planning decisions. It has been reported that to break the contract would cost the Council £30 million.

As a Truro councillor, I'm aware that the community dividend from landfill tax helps to support some very worthwhile local projects, including contributing towards the Hendra skatepark and Trelander community centre. But a relatively small proportion of the total landfill tax bill returns directly to the community.

At both stages of the planning consultation, Truro and Falmouth Labour Party made representations against the single, centralised incinerator in favour or more localised waste facilities. There is no household amenity site in Truro, although planning permission was granted this year for a new site near Falmouth. I also spoke for Transition Truro against the incinerator at a public consultation meeting in St Dennis which formed part of the planning process.

Despite public debate of this issue for over five years, and a new unitary authority, the facts of Cornwall's current waste management aren't easy to assemble. SITA says fairly that it has increased the proportion of household waste that is recycled - but all that this means is that more of the waste taken to its household amenity sites is reclaimed and recycled. All of the black bags collected every week go to landfill, they are not included in the figures showing increased recycling. Meanwhile, the former district Council in this constituency area reported that four out of ten households make no use of kerbside recycling collections - that's a lot of unused bumper boxes and recycling bags, and many more weekly black bags of recyclable items being ploughed into landfill.

Cornwall Council is now NOC with a Tory-dominated executive. The new Council badly needs to bring it's thinking on waste management up to date. There's an opportunity to move to an integrated municipal waste strategy - with unified recycling services - with a single new unitary authority replacing seven former councils. From April 2010, the Council has new legal obligations to reduce carbon emissions in it's activities; is a centralised incinerator generating 120 mile round road trips going to help do that? Landfill also produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Whatever the 'eventual history', Cornwall needs a new, fit for purpose waste management strategy that will make a positive contribution to meeting carbon reduction targets and generating renewable energy in the 21st century.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Digital Cornwall, digital economy

Most important of all for Cornwall's digital economy is keeping our infrastructure up to speed with latest developments. Act Now - which was supported by EU Objective One funding - provided almost universal geographical access to broadband in Cornwall, and helped many businesses understand and access the commercial potential of the internet. The legacy of this funding is optimism and confidence among Cornwall's business community - and has helped provide increased resilience through the recession.

As the only UK region to receive EU convergence funding, Cornwall has an opportunity to step ahead of the game with next generation broadband access, and Digital Cornwall is the project that is leading the search for investors to unleash that potential. In Cornwall, and for everyone who wants the UK to accelerate our exit from recession, the Tory shadow spokesperson for the digital industry sounds quaintly twentieth century in his 'urban first' perspective on priorities for investment in next generation infrastructure. Hopefully, commercial investors have more vision.

Cornwall's University - built with Labour's investment - has raised awareness that digital industries across the spectrum from electronics to film and other creative industries have a vigorous contribution to make to Cornwall's new economy. Locally, premises for digital industries relying on next generation infrastructure are already being built into strategic investment frameworks and other plans. This vision is now part of everyday dialogue about planning our economic future in local organisations such as Falmouth Town Forum.

The digital economy Bill included in the Queen's speech will shape the way in which digital industries and communication will be regulated, and covers issues such as protecting copyright on the internet, digital radio, and ensuring the future of regional news. It will provide for regional news consortia to be established and guarantee a plurality of news providers.

In Cornwall, the long-anticipated switchover to digital TV has now been completed. However, ITV's decision to close it's Plymouth studio reduced local TV news coverage in Cornwall. So I welcome steps to provide a new framework within which a plurality of local news providers can flourish, and I hope we will see independent TV / digital channel news in Cornwall.

Cornwall has vibrant local newspapers and other media, which are trusted news sources off and online. We are fortunate too that the University teaches professional broadcasting and journalism. Community radio stations in Cornwall are already taking advantage of the opportunity to broadcast on the internet.

A growing number of elected representatives, candidates, and other opinionated individuals express their views through websites, blogs, and social media. As a politician, I welcome and utilise these relatively openly accessible media. If other candidates agree, the first parliamentary candidate hustings on Twitter will take place in Truro and Falmouth. Another first for Cornwall.     

Friday, November 20, 2009

Free personal care at home

No-one who listens to older people in Cornwall can be unaware that many fear needing everyday care, and worry about what this might mean for them and their families. People fear major illness, but the NHS means that in the UK this fear is not about how to pay for care that is needed. In contrast, at the moment, personal savings and - for the three out of four people who are home-owners - the value of a person's home are drawn into the calculation of how individual social care is funded.

Labour's personal care at home bill will enable adults with high levels of assessed care needs, who want to continue living in their own homes with the support they need, to do so free of charge. It is a first step towards creating a national care service like the NHS - free at the point of need, and free of worry about how care that is needed is going to be paid for.

In Cornwall, more than half the population are over the age of 55. There are many people who need care and support to continue living in their own homes. Dementia affects a growing number of people, with almost 8,000 people with Alzheimer's living in Cornwall. I recently attended a carers' meeting to learn more about dementia, local care services and support, and the impact that dementia has on sufferers, carers, and their families.

We are fortunate to have vocal and determined local groups advocating a better deal for people with disabilities. While creating a national care service is applauded as the right principle, people want to know 'what's this going to mean for me?', and - if they already receive care and support - 'will this be better or worse for me than current arrangements?' Both the Disabilities Living Allowance and the Attendance Allowance give people living at home and in need of care freedom to create care arrangements which suit their personal circumstances - and free to decide whether and when everyday care is provided by family, friends, and professionals. It is that freedom of individual choice that advocates hope to see continue in the new system. Following discussion with local campaigners, I've already written on their behalf to Secretary of State Andy Burnham MP.

This morning, I was interviewed by a local community radio station about the changes announced in the Queen's speech.

Given the number of local people this issue affects, the Liberal Democrats showed how seriously out of touch they really are by suggesting the Queen's speech "contained none of the key measures necessary to help residents in Cornwall". A Party that has previously called for free care for the elderly, in an area where a majority of electors are over 55, made no mention of Labour's plans for free personal care at home. Perhaps that's because they've abandoned their own previous manifesto pledge to free personal care for the elderly.

The Tories have been equally political and opportunist, scare-mongering that future arrangements would not provide the same level of support for people who currently receive DLA and Attendance Allowance - in fact, Government Ministers have already provided an assurance that they will. So far, the only Tory promise is that they will make people pay £8000 for needed care - that's £16,000 for a couple; and force people off incapacity benefit, many of whom have mental health difficulties.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Queen's speech

In seven minutes the Queen's speech was strong on substantial measures, and short on detail. Some I particularly welcome, not least because people I speak to on a daily basis are calling for changes or will benefit:

1. Stronger financial regulation and control of bonuses.
2. Halving the deficit over the four years of the next Parliament, making this a legally binding target.
3. Improving social care and free access to care.
4. Communications - implementation of the Digital Britain report, and strategic investment in next generation broadband.
5. International co-operation through Copenhagen to tackle climate change.
6. Global justice - investment 0.7% GDP in international development, supporting middle east peace process, furthering progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
7. Ending child poverty.
8. Equality Act.
9. Elected second chamber.
10. Education and families.

In future posts, I will look in turn at some of the proposed legislation, and what it will mean for people in Truro and Falmouth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Housing - here's some I made earlier

As a councillor, as well as prospective MP, I advocate meeting the need for affordable local homes. And I have been calling on our local Councils to work together - and with Labour in government - to that end.

There is a growing need for social housing, with the Cornwall Council website saying 3,400 households are registered as in local housing need in this constituency. I want every one of those families and individuals to find homes which meet their housing needs sooner rather than later.

The Liberal Democrats practical track record on this issue in Cornwall is utterly abyssmal. To be fair, let me acknowledge two things first. Matthew Taylor MP's report for the Labour government includes some sensible proposals which have support in the housing sector - I hope these will be implemented. And it was the Liberal Democrat led former district council which decided to set up Carrick Housing Ltd, which is now an award winning registered social landlord. This had two direct results: it made the management of Carrick housing independent of Council decision-making, while allowing the Council to retain public ownership of the properties as assets.

Carrick Housing Ltd successfully accessed Labour government investment to improve homes whose maintenance had been neglected since the Tories sought to abandon public responsibility for social housing and homelessness. New rooves, cladding, central heating, kitchens, and bathrooms were installed as needed in most Carrick Housing properties. At the same time, with a vocal tenants forum able to have a formative influence on Carrick Housing's decision making, they have been positive partners in the development of new community centres and other projects to improve previously neglected local neighbourhoods, including effective action to tackle anti-social behaviour. And it was Carrick Housing which first made Cornwall eligible to build new council housing.

There is a catalogue of reasons why I say the Liberal Democrats record is abyssmal. Here are just four examples:

(1) When considering the latest draft local action plan for Truro and Threemilestone, I proposed Truro City Council advocate more than one in three homes be affordable. With one abstention, Liberal Democrats voted against more affordable homes when the Council agreed by a majority vote to include a 50 per cent target for affordable housing in new developments.

(2) When the Liberal Democrats led Carrick District Council, they sold some council-owned land which had been set aside for housing, next to the Malpas Road estate in Truro. They then allowed the private housing developer who had purchased the site to buy their way out of the usual requirement to include one in three affordable homes in a new development of more than 45 properties. So the Liberal Democrats waved goodbye to even 15 new affordable homes within walking distance of Truro centre, on a site that had originally been bought with public money to meet council housing need. And then, to make their intentions even more woolly, the Liberal Democrat MPs and prospective candidate for the Carrick area had themselves photographed at the gates of the construction site, and included it in their leaflets alongside calls for more affordable homes.

(3) When the Liberal Democrats led Cornwall County Council, the new Richard Lander School was built. Draft local plans identified the former school as a new housing site, the only substantial proposed housing development which has support of a majority of residents in the ward where I'm a councillor. Instead of making its land available for new social housing, the Council decided to market it to the highest bidder. The prospective purchaser then pulled out. One of the last acts of the outgoing Liberal Democrat led Council was to apply for planning permission to continue to use the old school site as business premises for up to three years - clearly they were not in a hurry to build new affordable homes.

(4) Neither Liberal Democrat MP will be a candidate in this constituency at the next general election. While both chose to make affordable housing an issue at the 2005 general election, neither then publicly challenged the failure of Councils led by their Party to maximise the practical delivery of more affordable local homes. Julia Goldsworthy MP's wobbling and contradictory statements in different forums on proposed housing developments in Cornwall makes jelly look like a solid and stable material - and I have not heard her say anything at all about locally controversial specific proposals such as new student flats in Penryn.

Apparently cast in the same woolly mould, a recent leaflet from the Liberal Democrat prospective candidate here, headed 'The facts' suggests 3,000 - not 3,400 - families are registered in local housing need; and blames 'Margaret Thatcher's right to buy policy' for local housing shortages - when in fact the increase in house prices means Carrick Housing say they are not losing any local housing stock to tenants' right to buy. Out of date, and no comment on the more recent dire failure of elected Liberal Democrats at every level to deliver more local homes - it seems it is easier to blame a Tory prime minister who was elected 30 long years ago partly on a popular platform of extending housing opportunity.

When the new Cornwall Council cabinet was announced in June, I immediately contacted Independent councillor Mark Kaczmarek, who is the housing portfolio holder, and asked for a meeting. I urged him to do two things in his new role - for the new Council to take up opportunities to bid for housing investment from Labour in government, including building new council housing, and to make some of the land owned by Cornwall Council available for housing development while retaining ownership of the land, because this makes it possible to deliver more lower-cost housing.

At the same time I made this campaign video about Cornwall's housing needs, calling for more action by the Council:

The Council didn't bid in June - it wasn't something the Liberal Democrats put in hand before the voters chucked them out - but the new Council has now agreed two things: to build new council homes, with Truro (Tresillian) and Falmouth included in the first three sites. And to bid for funding to build up to 900 homes on Council-owned sites, including 265 homes for older people and those with disabilities. The locations have not yet been announced.

Cornwall Council is still going to be a long, long way away from meeting local housing need if these proposals come to fruition - over 19,000 households are in housing need. Politics won't stop me welcoming the prospect of more affordable local homes if the new Council's bids are successful - they will after all be built thanks to Labour investment. And I will be watching closely at every stage to maximise new homes for families in this constituency, which has one of the highest levels of housing need in Cornwall.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Hitch your wagon to a star

Those seeking to hitch the electoral reform cart to the runaway horse that is the public response to MPs' expenses revelations misread - or wilfully misinterpret - the change that people want to see. Their opportunistic efforts to shift the focus of political renewal onto tinkering with the voting system will not succeed.

The Kelly report recommendations published today come closer to downsizing greed and exploitation by a minority of MPs, in a way that redresses the public outrage at what has been revealed; although many will question the proposal that mortgage payments should continue for up to five years for existing MPs who are re-elected. As a prospective MP, I welcome the proposed shift to rented accommodation in London rather than second homes. And I support moves to prevent MPs employing family members.

Political renewal in the UK is partly about ensuring public service is free of self-serving interests. It is also about delivering the new constitutional settlement that Gordon Brown promised as he became Prime Minister.

That is about whether legislation will be completed in this Parliament for the long overdue, fully elected second chamber. It is about creating a democracy in which citizens engage willingly and actively because they have a formative influence locally as well as nationally. And it is about Parliament carrying forward the call of the UK Youth Parliament for lowering the voting age to sixteen to be debated and decided.

Voters dismayed by some MPs abuse of the expenses system are not calling for changes to the electoral system; they just want to end the self-seeking, extravagance, and waste. They want representatives who understand that for most people everyday life is about working hard to afford one home for their families, and at a time when unemployment is rising. That means strengthening, not diluting, the link between voters, local communities, and the individual elected representative or representatives.

Political Parties that want to take a first step in that direction by holding open primaries can do so without changing the law. 

We need to keep talking about homes, jobs, cost of living, schools, hospitals, better transport, and safer communities. Not cynical, tactical or 'strategic' voting, and proportional representation.

Monday, November 02, 2009

House rules

Comments are on. I welcome interaction - particularly with and between readers in Cornwall - and I won't stifle debate.

Reluctantly, moderation is on too. Don't expect an instant response, but I will publish most comments the same day. I won't publish anything I find offensive.

Mostly I find that people using social media respect everyday conversational rules. If anyone doesn't, I'll encourage them to move on.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

First post

I've decided to start a new blog. This is it. It's a place for me to express my personal opinions. For which, I willingly accept, the responsibility is all mine. Some of the posts here may be published into other forums too.