Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010 - the year for hope

The new year is about hope.

As I write it is dark outside, blowing a gale, and the temperature is dropping sharply. Nevertheless the days are getting longer, one of the things I love about Cornwall is how quickly ever-changing weather blows across this narrow peninsula - as well as the fact that it is usually a few degrees warmer than the rest of the UK - and the next few days are forecast to be sunny and dry.

Political forecasts which turn out to be right are always lucky guesses. Journalists and politicians spice plausibility with personal predilections and the 'predictions for 2010' article is written.

The new year messages from the Prime Minster, opposition Party leader, and Liberal Democrat Party leader encompass the mood music and issues which it is believed will determine how people make their choice in the 2010 general election.

David Cameron clearly believes the way to maximise the Tory vote is to seek to occupy Labour's ground - 'the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. It's how to achieve these aims that we disagree about.' This actually shows the strength of Labour's achievement and election potential as we enter a general election year.

No matter how many times Cameron wails 'politics is broken' like a needle stuck on a scratched vinyl record, his core vote message is: "we can't beat Labour, so let's pretend to be them". Politics is broken when it is reduced to a focus group led PR exercise that results in empty presentational cross-dressing. Politics is broken when a Tory democratic choice is marketed as a 'change' label with the fraudulent strapline 'same progressive aims'. Many Tory, UKIP, and BNP voters are happy to be honest that they don't in the least subscribe to 'progressive aims' - they know it's their democratic right - and fortunately in the UK, their retrograde views are in the minority.

David Cameron's new year message included much headlined cosying up to the Liberal Democrats: 'between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is a lot less disagreement than there used to be.... And once the battle is over, we will need to rise above our differences and come together because that is the only way.' Whereas Nick Clegg's new year message was devoid of the same message a few weeks after he signalled a willingness to work with a Cameron government.

Clegg's new year message contains a rare moment of clarity, in which all his fluffy claims about the third Party delivering 'fairness' are replaced by a directly simple message urging voters to 'vote for what you believe in'. I had thought that the Liberal Democrat blog 'Moment of clarity' might have the inside track on their intended election platform when he worried out loud of the leaders' planned TV debates that 'Participation will also force us to solidify our narrative and the somewhat schematic approach we have to policy-formulated-to-grab-headlines (which vanishes soon after its served its purpose) may well be exposed.' If 2010 is going to be the year when the Liberal Democrats ditch forked-tongue campaigning and tactical voting before a general election, I will be the first to welcome their honest conversion to sincere politics. It's not what Nick Clegg said in his letter to me.

Of the three Party leaders, only the Prime Minister had a message that sounded sincere to me. I think Gordon Brown does believe that 'what matters is not where you come from but what you have to contribute', and his message outlined a substantial strategy for economic recovery.

I hope that the coming general election will be a real debate about future prosperity, equalising access to opportunities, and political renewal.

I hope that Cornwall will take local action to tackle climate change, while we wait on practical commitments from some world leaders.

I hope that this will be the year when voters decide to ditch tactical voting in favour of sincere politics.

And I hope that 2010 really will be the first internet election.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


At the time of the 1979 general election, I was living at Trieste in northern Italy, teaching English as a foreign language. Falmouth reminds me of Trieste. The naval vessels visiting port, which at the time included a US airforce carrier. During lunchtime siesta breaks, I would catch a bus to the nearest beach to go swimming. Former fishing boats also ferried people to villages and beaches along the Serbian coast. At weekends, both Venice and northern Yugoslavia (as it was at the time) were a short train ride away.

I heard the result of the 1979 general election on the BBC world service. I was in the office at the language school. When the radio headline announced that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, one of the directors at the language school said 'jolly good'. That wasn't how I felt, and the result certainly didn't strengthen my inclination to return to the UK. After the language school term ended, I advertised in the local paper for individual students; there were just enough. I stayed on in Trieste, and then spent a few weeks travelling around Italy, before returning to the UK to take up a university place in the autumn.

The publication today of papers from Margaret Thatcher's first months of office reminded me of two things.

One is the historical irony that - despite Thatcher's predilection for public spending cuts, combative approach, and thick skinned capacity to engender rising poverty and tolerate its human consequences - soaring unemployment meant that the total welfare bill rose rather than fell on her watch and that of John Major. It is also clear from the reports of the papers published now just how little traction a monetarist approach gave the incoming Tory administration on the economy.

The descriptions of Thatcher's dismay at the lack of immediately discoverable profligate public sector waste to trim also reminds me of recent reports of the incoming Tory dominated Cornwall Council executive. In particular, Cllr Jim Currie's apparently annoyed response to an independent report which confirmed that the Council's finances are in reasonable shape with current borrowing levels - and even though, as audit assessments have highlighted, some aspects of their financial management need improvement.

In 1979, the idea that a general election might change the Party governing the country wasn't novel. It was the fourth general election in a decade, and those in 1970 and 1974 - as well as 1979 - had transferred government between Parties. Maybe it was because I was living in Italy during the general election campaign that it was only after I returned that I understood the depth of political change brought by the 1979 general election - persuasive evidence if it were needed that politics, voting, and elections really can change things.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Truro - a market town with a cathedral.

Truro councillors were informed for the first time last week that since July 2009 a working group has been meeting to draw up plans for a 'strategic investment framework' (SIF) for Truro which will spend part of Cornwall's EU convergence funding to improve transportation ('connectivity') and strengthen business infrastructure. Fortunately, it seems we have managed to get the timetable extended from January to March so that there can be proper discussion of the options summarised in the draft document.

Brought forward in the draft proposals are some elements of the Local Transport Plan which are sustainable, can be match funded by Cornwall Council, and will probably be accepted fairly readily by people who live in Truro. If the funding can be brought together for a park and ride in east Truro and parkway station at Treluswell (which is also in the Falmouth/Penryn community plan, and university proposals), people who are fed up with traffic congestion caused by commuting into and out of Truro may well say 'yes please'. Even if it occurs to them to ask questions about who is going to pay for the buses, trains, and drivers after the EU investment has been made. About half of the residents in the ward I represent (Trehaverne) will probably also take the opportunity to suggest that a more sustainable transport system means there is no need for the proposed distributor road.

Built into the draft document is an assumption that, to be made to work, park and ride must be backed by a robust 'parking strategy'. This will be music to the ears of residents in Gloweth, who have long been exhorting Cornwall Council to introduce a 'parking strategy' for the residential roads near Truro College, the hospital at Treliske, and the existing park and ride near Threemilestone, to stop people parking inconsiderately on their kerbs and verges. Presumably, this means the new park and rides will be expected to be cheap or free for commuters, and parking in the centre of Truro will be horribly expensive and subject to meticulous civil enforcement (as it is now). Truro isn't the only Cornish town where some people will be calling for fairer, free or cheaper parking for local residents, and they have my support. Cornwall Council's latest draft 'parking strategy' puts Truro - which is the fourth largest centre of population in Cornwall - in a category all of it's own as a 'city'. Like St Davids, Truro is a town that is only called a city because it has a cathedral. Plymouth or Exeter it's not. There is a 'large towns' category which lists other places in Cornwall, three of which are larger than Truro - if Cornwall's new parking strategy is going to have categories, that's the one Truro should be in.

As a Councillor, there is no getting away from parking, but other aspects of the draft Truro SIF proposals concern me more. One is a suggestion that £225,000 ERDF might be spent on a Truro town centre traffic study. As Councils without access to ERDF manage to design town centre traffic systems, I think it is completely wrong to try to divert some of the last, stretched EU funding that Cornwall will be eligible for into this everyday business.

The second concern is bigger. We were told that one of the reasons why councillors were not involved in earlier discussions is that the working group was 'technical'. That being so, you would think the working group would have drawn on the available technical studies which form part of the draft local development framework, which was recently scheduled by Cornwall Council to complete its inspection two years from now (December 2011). This includes important studies of flood risk management, given Truro is located in a river basin, and renewable energy - both seeking to address issues neglected in the earlier 'core strategy' document which failed it's inspection partly because of inadequate attention to climate change risks.

EU convergence investment is supposed to deliver zero carbon economic growth including new green sector jobs and businesses. My heart sank at the answers I was given about this at the briefing meeting. The Council has signed up to 10:10 at my instigation, and is utilising it's powers to promote microgeneration, but it didn't occur to me we would have a difficult job getting it built into the EU convergence programme planning for Truro. The draft document includes just one funding proposal to research and develop an implementation plan for an energy supply company (ESCO). Other aspects of the draft SIF document and evidence base directly contradict the renewable energy technical study produced for Truro's draft local plan. So it should be back to the drawing board with a need to make rapid progress on alternative additional proposals in the early new year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

My letter from Nick Clegg

The post has been getting later every day, and fell through the letter box at about 2pm. I opened the Christmas cards first and put them up. I'm registered with the marketing preference service, so I very rarely receive junk mail. Organisations lobbying on a range of issues write to me as a prospective MP. Some with informative briefings on issues which matter a great deal to some people in this constituency, like that from the Alzheimers Society. Others adopt a more clubbable approach, and the stack of invitations can make Westminster appear like an all year round Party conference of events hosted by interest groups. I thought the envelope that contained my letter from Nick Clegg might be one of these.

The letter headed as from the House of Commons address bore the Liberal Democrat logo and a photo of Nick Clegg. It contained a postal vote application form and freepost envelope addressed to the local Liberal Democrat office in Truro. The Electoral Commission recommend that people return completed postal vote application forms direct to the local Council's electoral registration office, to avoid the risk of interference. A previous similar mailing by Julia Goldsworthy MP made using her parliamentary correspondence allowance led to her actions being investigated by the parliamentary standards watchdog.

Last week Paddy Ashdown made a campaign visit to Cornwall. The local newspaper's 'Ex-party leader shows support for candidates' reported that Mr Ashdown said "In Mr Cameron I think you will get a Home Counties Government with a Home Counties cabinet, which will not be good for the Westcountry." But if the coming general election were to result in a hung Parliament, Nick Clegg said recently Liberal Democrat MPs would lend their support to the Tories to enable Cameron to form a government (pictured above). It is presumably through this route that Mr Clegg feels able to make the imaginary claim in his letter to me that "our growing force of Lib Dem MPs after the next election ... will be able to get even more done for you."

In his letter to me, Mr Clegg says: "hardly anyone really wants a return to the way things were under the Conservatives. Many cannot forget the way they treated Cornwall when they were last in power." This is true, and Cornwall since 1997 has benefited from unprecedented investment in the NHS, a new university, new school buildings, more jobs, the minimum wage, and home improvements for tenants. Now why is that? Because, and only because, Labour has been in government. It has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, nor does Mr Clegg claim that it has.

However, Mr Clegg says "Cornwall needs real change. Real change that only the Liberal Democrats will deliver." This is a strange claim for him to make, because Cornwall's current MPs are Liberal Democrat. Mr Clegg doesn't pretend it is they who have delivered any of the positive changes in Cornwall since 1997, nor does he acknowledge that Labour's successful track record needs built on. Many people in Cornwall want Labour's investment to continue.

In contrast, after four years of Liberal Democrat leadership of the county council, only one is six of the Cornwall councillors in this constituency are now Liberal Democrat - their voteshare fell by 13 per cent, and the Independents won most seats here in the local elections this year.

There are no claims in Mr Clegg's letter that Cornwall is better off thanks to Liberal Democrat MPs, rather than Labour in government. The only achievement claimed by Mr Clegg on behalf of his MPs is a recent OFWAT decision which is likely to take about £6 a year off an average local water bill. If more is achieved for water customers it will be because the government decides to take up recommendations in the Walker review which Labour commissioned - the Liberal Democrats responded to the consultation and spoke to the water Minister about it. As a Labour prospective MP, so did I.

The next bit made me laugh out loud: "Your support really will help [us] get a better deal for Cornwall...PS Don't forget the choice is between [a] Cornish local champion ..who has a record of action or the unproven Conservative." Zero promises of what the 'better deal' would comprise, zero examples of any local action by the Liberal Democrat PPC, zero support gained from me (obviously), and zero acknowledgement that the last time this person was candidate here she took the Liberal Democrats from second to third place when Labour won the seat.

Like that election, in this constituency the next one will be a choice between a Labour and Tory government and the future they offer for Cornwall. Bring it on. A vote for either of the other Parties is a vote for Cameron to form a "Home Counties" government, with Clegg's collusion, and to bring Labour's further planned investment in Cornwall's future to an end.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Homeless children in Cornwall - the tip of the iceberg

Some recently published data shows the extent of acute housing need in Cornwall.

Households in temporary accommodation are the tip of the iceberg as far as housing need is concerned. They summarise how many households - faced with the prospect of homelessness - have gone to Cornwall Council and been placed in temporary accommodation.

The latest figures are for the third quarter of 2009 (up to end September). Spare a thought anyway for all the homeless families, children, and individuals who will spend Christmas in temporary accommodation.

There were 337 Cornish households in temporary accommodation up to the end of September 2009; 51 of these were in bed and breakfast, rather than short-term private or social housing lets, or women's refuges.

Backed by Labour in Government, District Councils in Cornwall worked hard to bring these figures down. That responsibility has now transferred to Cornwall Council.

This is part of the human story behind Cornwall Council's red flag for housing in their area assessment report. Bringing more of the many empty properties in Cornwall into better social use would mean fewer people in acute housing need being placed in bed and breakfast; it would help to increase the availability of both temporary and long-term homes for rent.

The figures don't say how many people - as opposed to households - are in temporary accommodation.

I'm just hoping any Cornwall Councillors and officers reading this will make a new year's resolution to do their bit to reduce the number of Cornish families in temporary accommodation by Christmas 2010.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Climate justice and poverty

The Queen's speech commitment to increase international aid to 0.7 per cent of the UK's national income by 2013 has had limited coverage, partly because the Tories fell in behind the proposals rendering them politically neutral. And yet the stalling of the UN conference at Copenhagen showed that global co-operation needs new momentum. Since the Make Poverty History campaign, one of Gordon Brown's strengths has been finding ways to provide aid as practical support - such as HIV vaccination - rather than as liquid funds which can be diverted away from their intended purpose. The global response to climate change needs to provide practical support for sustainable development and adaptations to climate change, and accept that developed economies need to make bigger cuts sooner. It is better to be where we are now than for the UN to have put a detailed but inadequate agreement in place. The agreement as it stands includes funding of 10 Billion dollars a year. Now we need to raise our game by agreeing robust targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions - the next opportunity to discuss these will be in February.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Deal or no deal?

There's a media strategy which says if you raise hopes too high you may end up disappointing people, but if you lower expectations you may be able to snatch success from the jaws of failure if things turn out better than you have led people to expect.

The messages put out before the Copenhagen summit - that a deal might be reached but it was expected to take more time to make it legally binding - reminded me of the latter. Several of Obama's big US policy shifts - including health reform - have gone right to the edge of possible failure before the decision-makers votes were counted and the reforms came in.

So - as the Copenhagen conference comes to an end - the prospect of a fragile accord on the longterm goal of stopping climate change, with no agreement on targets for 2020, feels like a let-down. In the world of politics, it will be easy for people to emphasise the negative uncertainties left lying on the table as the world leaders and negotiators pack their bags to go home.

I'm a natural optimist, but following the G20 I wrote about why it was going to be much more difficult to get agreement at Copenhagen. I would love to have been proved wrong. And yet, comparing where we are now to Kyoto, real progress has been made. At Copenhagen we have three things that weren't there at Kyoto: a scientific consensus on the need for action that withstood the climate change deniers best efforts to undermine the reasons for action; a US President at the conference calling for agreement and pledging an 80 per cent cut in his country's emissions by 2050; and perhaps most importantly, poorer countries with the confidence to bite the hands that partly feed them by demanding a further shift in their direction to achieve a fairer global deal, and prepared to walk from the negotiating table when it wasn't forthcoming.

The threat of climate change is the opportunity to utilise the growing necessity of climate justice to end global poverty. Creating a stable and prosperous world economy will not be easy - it will take much more than tinkering with the financial systems we make until they start up again. But the international dialogue in the past two weeks put the real issues out on the table, and it isn't really surprising the deal is still some way off.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A bright future for Falmouth Penryn

Last week I attended the launch of Falmouth and Penryn's Community Plan. It's a fine example of what can be achieved when the community - individuals and organisations - sit down to talk about what their locality and people need. In this case, both the range of organisations working together to develop the plan, and the number of individuals who responded to the consultation, mean that decision makers can be confident the community is genuinely behind the plan.

Falmouth and Penryn have had their fair share of difficult issues and community divisions over parking, proposed housing developments on cherished green spaces, and adapting to the presence of the growing student population; so it's good to have a plan that has been generated by the community and is focused on future solutions. Cornwall Council chief executive Kevin Lavery spoke at the launch and gave the plan his backing, including the regeneration, dredging, and development of Falmouth docks.

The launch is well-timed because EU Convergence funding is still available for 'strategic investment frameworks' to help develop infrastructure and boost the economy. As two of the community plan's themes are 'transport and the community' and 'employment and prosperity' there is scope to bid for funds to start making some of the community's aspirations happen. The strategic investment framework by itself won't resolve the issue of funding to dredge the docks, but if it is successful it will help to put in place some of the sustainable transport links that are needed, as well as helping to create jobs in the digital, marine, and renewable sectors. That economic regeneration would be very much strengthened if the dredging and cruise liner terminal also go ahead.

These are developments that I'm also backing as a prospective MP because it is the future that many people say they want to see for the university, Penryn, and Falmouth.

This week, Falmouth is in the news for another reason. The proposed new terminal at Penzance for the Isles of Scilly ferry was refused planning permission on Monday. I feel sorry for the islanders because the ferry is their lifeline, and the links to and from Penzance are deeply rooted in the communities and economy at both ends of the sealink. The battle lines were drawn at an early stage when it proved impossible to get objectors and the planning portfolio holder in the same room to listen to each other - until the planning hearing. Rumours have now started up that Cornwall Council may look to Falmouth to provide the future ferry service. This is something that the company that owns Falmouth docks is exploring, and Cornwall Council has said it is now an 'option' they are considering. From what I'm hearing, people in Falmouth might accept this - and even welcome the boost to Falmouth's economy if that's the way it went - but the town would never set out to purposefully break the strong, long-standing links between Penzance and the Scillies.

Falmouth and Penryn have a bright future ahead.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Helping Cornwall's poorest children

There are 4 Million children living in poverty in the UK today, including 1 in 4 of the children living in Cornwall. These figures are based on the number of children living in low income households.

The Child Poverty Bill - which is completing its journey through the House of Lords - will introduce a legally binding commitment to end child poverty by 2020. Amidst the major concerns about child protection and other issues in Cornwall, it is worth remembering that Cornwall Council has been awarded Beacon status for it's work in tackling child poverty.

Ending child poverty by 2020 will require well-considered, co-ordinated action by Government - to redress low incomes in families with children, to address fuel poverty (and in Cornwall, unaffordable water bills), and to ensure that statutory agencies and local government work together to address multiple deprivation which reduces children's opportunities. The minimum wage, tax credits, child benefit increases, Sure Start, and the extension of free school meals to more children are all steps in the right direction.

To end child poverty there needs to be well-considered action by local government too. Cornwall may be a Beacon authority for tackling child poverty, but the Council's less effective action in addressing unmet housing need, homelessness, non-decent homes, delayed housing benefit payments, poor rural transport, and limited access to services blight the lives of children too.

In this constituency, the new network of eleven children's centres in Falmouth, Penryn, Truro, and Perranporth - adjacent to primary schools or located in community centres - are home to better co-ordinated services for children, and provide conveniently located after school and play activities. All of these were built with Labour investment.

Locally, the new Cornwall Council is generating concern through rumours that it intends to close one in three primary schools, and by it's actions in relation to the Trevu children's centre; as well as because it is now subject to government intervention to sort out it's child protection arrangements.

Nationally, the last Tory governments up to 1997 allowed child poverty to double - I remember that one of their first actions after being elected in 1979 was to cancel any government action in response to the 'Black report', which had shown that poverty causes ill-health.

Here are some reactions from independent policy watchers to the emerging, current pre-election debate on ending child poverty:

‘We welcome the fact that Conservatives are taking seriously the scandal of four million children in poverty in the fourth richest country in the world. But their proposals miss the point that without real income redistribution to close the inequality gap we will never reach that goal.’ - Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

'No credible commitment to end child poverty can ignore income levels. Social activism and entrepreneurship are important but no substitute for direct government intervention, such as tax credits, which raise family incomes.’ - Claire McCarthy, director of public affairs at 4Children.

‘Ending child poverty is proving one of the hardest challenges for Labour to tackle and more money is needed to target benefits and tax credits at the poorest children. It needs an active state which provides tailored support for families (for example through Sure Start, another key service which would be at risk under the Tories), rather than one which leaves them to the perils of the market. I don't believe Cameron can deliver on this pledge when he is committed to cutting taxes for millionaires. And his judgemental and spiteful tax breaks for married couples will not only damage gender equality, but will come at the expense of poor children in single parent families.’ - Kate Groucutt, chair of Young Fabians.
For my family, Labour's welfare state ended poverty in a single generation. A 'big society' without the backing of government resources would never have done that. It happened because of Labour's commitment in government to real change and social justice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fighters and believers

Films seldom make me cry, but this video shown at Labour Party conference brought tears to my eyes. An elderly gentleman sitting near me in a wheelchair wiped a tear from his cheek. Young Labour supporter Ellie Gellard has also written about how it made her cry. The film was edited to become Labour's party political broadcast following the Queen's speech.

Politics is partly about debate, but there is nothing that anyone could ever say that would persuade me that it's purpose isn't to build social justice.

The Tories have no moral agenda, and the Liberal Democrats are prepared to back them. When I noted this previously, a local Liberal Democrat councillor suggested I read the Independent - well, I do, and the link I've added here is to their report. The logic of Clegg's morally vacuous argument is that if UKIP or the BNP ever got most votes (unlikely as that is given British common sense), the Liberal Democrats would be prepared to back them.

The Equality Bill had it's third reading in the Commons on 2 December 2009. The legal requirement for public authorities to close the gap between rich and poor, and increased protection against age discrimination outside the workplace, makes this more than consolidating legislation against inequality and discrimination; notwithstanding which, local disability and gay rights campaigners tell me they would like the Bill to go further in protection from harrassment.

After the Queen's speech, Cornwall's five MPs put out a press release saying it "contained none of the key measures necessary to help residents in Cornwall". Are they out of touch with the fact that Cornwall has an older and lower paid than average population, much affected by the gap between rich and poor? Everyone is entitled to protection from discrimination. In the event, three of Cornwall's Liberal Democrat MPs voted for the Equality Bill; and two didn't vote - including recent champion of a Cornish census tickbox, Dan Rogerson MP.

The political slogan 'action not words' was coined by suffragettes a century ago, when they were lobbying the three last Liberal governments to change the law so that women could vote. It took until 1918 - it may be a coincidence, but the Liberals haven't formed a government since women got the vote.

I'm Labour because we believe in and fight for change and social justice; and I personally will always do what I can to counter injustice and pull things forward.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Social care

A national care service has the potential to make a huge difference for people needing care in Cornwall.

Today, the Care Quality Commission reported on Cornwall's adult social care, placing it in the bottom eight out of 148 local authorities. The care provided is 'adequate' - no authorities are providing 'poor' care - and this rating has not changed since last year's report.

Behind every official report like this there are people receiving less good care than each of us would wish for our loved ones. One of the issues highlighted is the lack of integration between Cornwall's NHS and social care services. There are some similarities here with the concerns about child protection, in that it relates to improving communication and response to care needs.

The Council committee responsible for scrutinising these services (the local NHS and adult social care) is the Committee whose chairman recently called an 'emergency' meeting to discuss the issue of upper GI services which has already been under discussion for over a year partly because the Council did not refer it for consultation when it was first raised.

The Council needs to grasp the nettle here and set in train improvements in Cornwall's adult social care, as they are already doing through the Government led improvement Board for children's services.

Their 4.5 per cent increase in funding for next year needs applied to our major services. Now is not the time to be looking to make cuts given the savings achieved as a result of the switch to a unitary authority.