Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A burning issue revisited

Today the Cornwall Council waste strategy panel met to decide whether to ask their contracted waste company SITA to submit revised plans for an incinerator. SITA's previous incinerator plan was rejected by the Council's planning committee before the local elections last year. SITA appealed against this decision. There will now be a public enquiry in March, followed by a decision by the secretary of state after the latest possible date for a general election.

It was the Liberal Democrat Cornwall County Council elected in 2005 who chose incineration as their preferred approach and contracted with SITA. The comments on today's meeting to a local newspaper by Matthew Taylor MP would be comical if it weren't for the fact that - for financial as well as environmental reasons - practical decisions need to be made. Conveniently ignoring that it was a Liberal Democrat Council that agreed the contract with SITA, Matthew Taylor MP was the first to throw stones in the glass house: "The Conservatives opposed the incinerator to get elected, but now they are in charge they are about to double-cross electors and back the incinerator."

The fact is that the panel of five Tories, four Liberal Democrats, four Independents, and one MK councillor today decided a recommendation that will go to the Council's Cabinet. The majority backed incineration as an approach by recommending SITA develop a revised proposal.

The argument about Cornwall's waste strategy has run through three Councils and (so far) two general elections. It is fair to say that the issue is not Party political, in that representatives of the three main Parties have spoken for and against incineration in different representative roles, where there are different local factors to take into consideration, and at different stages of the process; for Labour, the only government view is that the chosen approach to waste management should be a local decision. And if anyone failed to deliver that, it was the Liberal Democrats.

I agree with Matthew Taylor MP that "Other communities are developing better, more environmental options for dealing with waste." Like him, I have consistently supported objections to his Party's original choice of incineration and at every subsequent decision stage; and the political boundary changes have not weakened the opposition of my constituency Labour Party to a single, centralised incinerator.

The Liberal Democrats dug the Council into a hole by supporting incineration and then allowing SITA to submit a plan that was refused planning permission. Financially, today's meeting may start to move the Council into a more manageable position and make it more likely that costs can be stopped from escalating.

For Cornwall's environment and carbon emissions it is still the wrong decision, caused by the Liberal Democrats who could have stopped the incinerator many of their supporters oppose when they were elected five years ago, and by now delivered a sustainable waste strategy for Cornwall. And fortunately, it may still be possible to do that, provided a single, centralised incinerator can be stopped.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Looking for work

Today's unemployment figures show a slight decrease nationally in the number of people seeking work. But in this constituency - even though unemployment is lower than the national average - there has been a slight increase in the number of people without a job.

The figures published today show the UK average has returned to the level of unemployment in March 1997 (4.1%). But in Cornwall, this comparison tells a different story. It isn't good that unemployment in this constituency has now risen to 3 per cent. But this is three quarters of the national figure, and just half the level of unemployment in Carrick in March 1997 (5.8%).

Every one of the 1,622 people seeking work in this constituency faces a challenge, and I know from listening to people who are seeking work locally that more support and better help is needed.

They will be helped by the fact that - even in the wake of the recession - Cornwall's economy is now much stronger than it was before Labour was elected in 1997. Labour's investment and employment policies - including the minimum wage and tax credits - mean that those seeking work now face brighter prospects than those who were unemployed in March 1997.

The map above shows the decrease in unemployment compared to the last previous recession in 1991-2. It highlights quite clearly the challenges Cornwall faced during the last Tory government, and the way that people in Cornwall have benefitted from Labour's actions in government since 1997.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The big issue

Cornwall Council has a few things to decide. It's forward plan, it's office 'vision', it's services and other budgets for next year. But councillors at the full Council meeting today spent three hours - with a break for lunch - discussing whether to award themselves a pay rise of up to 33 per cent.

In a previous post, I speculated that: 'the allowances issue will be politically neutral if the Tory and Liberal Democrat groups both vote against it, and if that is the case I would expect both of these groups to reward their councillors next year for good behaviour.'

After talking for three hours the Council agreed on a one-year freeze. The Liberal Democrats proposed an amendment in favour of a 4 year freeze. They lost. So next year it seems likely the Liberal Democrats will be able to do the same thing, and then laugh all the way to the bank. OK, this is one of a very small number of things I get cynical about.

But now the only issue they seem to think worth debating for three hours is out of the way, maybe the Council decision-makers could talk about some things that matter a great deal more to people in Cornwall.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Voting for what you believe in

There are two things I have never understood about arguments for electoral reform.

One is the claim that votes only 'count' if the Party and candidate you vote for is elected. This is absurd. The purpose of democratic elections is to make a choice between Parties and manifestos. If you do not vote - or if you spoil your ballot paper - you choose not to make your vote or have it counted. If you vote, it is counted, and your vote does 'count' and contribute to the result at every level.

Democratically, the challenge we face is the disengagement with politics which means many people do not vote. Last year, a low turnout gave us the new Cornwall Council elected by a minority of the electorate.

So here is one of my wishes for the general election - I hope people will take part and vote, as they queued up to do in the most recent American presidential election. In this new constituency, if the student population registers and votes, they could determine the outcome of the election.

The second thing I don't understand about arguments for electoral reform is why anyone thinks being asked to vote for more than one Party would make your vote 'count' more, because - like tactical voting - it is a systematic dilution and distortion of choice at an election.

And while we are talking about non-choices - people in Cornwall don't want a playground politics, where Lib/Con Party hacks swap taunts that their campaign chiefs are 'fatty', 'lardy', or dementing because they are standing on the same ground and treading on each others toes. If you don't have anything more worth saying, why bother opening your mouth.

No matter how many times the Lib/Con double act write to me, I will stand, fight, and vote for what I believe in - Labour.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cornwall's Cons - we can't go on like this

The latest press release from Cornwall's Tories claims of their plans to dispose of 48 office buildings and spend £12 Million plus on remodelling three main offices:

"Capital receipts from property disposals will be re-invested in better services."

Whereas Local Government Association guidance published in October 2009 confirms the legal position:

"Councils can only use assets sales to finance capital spending."

This fact was made clear to Cornwall Council's Cabinet on Wednesday 13 January 2010, and the Tory press release was published after that meeting.

While we are on the subject of Tory bogus claims, the fact that buildings which are no longer Council offices will not contribute to the Council's carbon emissions may do nothing to reduce Cornwall's carbon footprint if these buildings continue to be used by others without being retro-fitted. What has happened to Cornwall's climate change action plan?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cornwall Council - we can't go on like this

Yesterday morning I attended Cornwall Council Cabinet. On several occasions during the discussion of office disposal the corporate resources portfolio holder Cllr Jim Currie asserted "we've got to start doing things". A new resolution was tabled to replace the published one, and the Cabinet duly approved "the reduction from 78 principal buildings to 30 by 2015".

Several councillors made heartfelt pleas to see the list of 48 properties to be disposed of - or the list of 30 properties to be retained - and expressed concern that relocating staff to expanded main offices in Camborne, Truro, and Bodmin constituted centralisation at the expense of north, east, and west Cornwall. They were rebuffed with assurances that neither list exists - it seems the precise numbers 48 and 30 just popped up like Wednesday bonus balls, and the 'Property Transformation Plan for the Office Estate' approved in the resolution is a statement of intention for which the 'plan' has yet to be developed.

Paragraph 3.2 of the published report says that the changes may lead to the 'withdrawal of one stop shops' but that this would not be 'widespread'. If it weren't so important to the community, it might have been comical to hear Cabinet members assert that the plans are about back office accommodation and will have no impact on customer facing services, while the officer explained how they would provide better customer access - for example, at Dolcoath Avenue it may no longer be necessary for members of the public to take a lift to the second floor to see planning applications.

In the circumstances, perhaps I should be pleased that - in response to my question - Cllr Jim Currie directly denied that the office transformation plan will have any implications for the one stop shop in central Truro. If I were one of those who had voiced concern about centralisation, I might have wondered whether the Council intends to locate more than 1050 employees at offices in Truro.

The one stop shop in Truro is located on the ground floor of the former Carrick District Council offices. This is identified in the draft Truro and Threemilestone Action Plan (which is not expected to complete it's inspection until December 2011) as a development site. The draft action plan is already underpinned by back office project planning indicating when development is expected to take place, although that timetable drifted during the recession. The planning application for the Penzance new ferry terminal foundered partly because English Heritage is a statutory objector. It is unclear whether the Cabinet's plans to increase the number of staff working at County Hall from 680 to 1050 and move it's reception to a newly constructed 'public link' will get the listed building consents it would need. But it will be surprising if in due course the former Carrick District Council offices in Truro - one stop shop and all - do not come forward for redevelopment.

Perhaps surprisingly, until yesterday's meeting political blogs in Cornwall had been drawing dividing lines for the vote on proposed increases in allowances, at the full council next week, rather than the Cabinet's planned assets sale. For once, the allowances issue will be politically neutral if the Tory and Liberal Democrat groups both vote against it, and if that is the case I would expect both of these groups to reward their councillors next year for good behaviour. Politically, it will be more interesting if the Liberal Democrats behave as they have done previously and ditch their 2009 election pledge by voting for the increase.

If we didn't need genuine democratic renewal in the wake of the MPs' expenses revelations, it might be comical that David Cameron MP used his new year message to call for new politics before returning to his slapstick routines at Prime Minister's questions on Wednesdays. There is an important difference between the way that politicians' behave, and you see it in Cornwall councillors too. Regardless of political Party, I respect polticians who are direct and honest, speak their minds frankly, and show their political values. I do not respect politicians who are disingeuous - it may be one sort of political skill, but to me it only communicates self-interest and I believe politics is about public service, not conning people.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Cornwall's Tories - selling assets, cutting services

Since Wednesday, people all over Cornwall have been battening down the hatches in the snow. Many schools closed, lanes icy and dangerous, and stretches of some main roads inadequately gritted and salted forcing some drivers to abandon their cars. The former Carrick District Council was previously criticised every time there were insufficient sandbags to protect frequently flooded streets. Now Cornwall Council is rightly under the spotlight for its inadequate level of preparedness in freezing weather.

Some Cornwall Council meetings have been cancelled this week, but not the scrutiny meetings looking at the Council's draft budget - provided these meetings were quorate they went ahead. I can't help wondering whether some councillors - snowed in at home or not - have now missed their only chance to comment.

I wrote before about the fact that Liberal Democrats are the only group that decided to work in opposition to the no overall control - but now Tory dominated - executive. This doesn't alter the fact that some of the opposition concerns raised by Liberal Democrat members are naturally very local - actually, these ward-specific concerns might be raised more effectively if they were working as part of the administration. This week, it emerged that Truro Councillor Rob Nolan is the Liberal Democrats' whip. I'll resist the herding cats analogy because I'm more interested in what another minority political group - the Tories - are planning to do with some of Cornwall's assets which are currently in public ownership.

Next Wednesday, Cornwall Council Cabinet will discuss whether to dispose of 48 of its 78 office accommodation buildings. The list - which is unpublished - includes properties rented as well as owned by the Council. These proposals form an integral part of the draft budget for the corporate resources portfolio holder Tory Councillor Jim Currie, who was quoted in a local newspaper saying of the Council's approach to budgeting: "We have already been cutting things and that is why we don't have the resources we need to do things."

There are a number of big questions here. Is it financially sensible to bring forward plans to dispose of six out of ten of the Council's office properties while the commercial property market remains slow enough for the Government to have recently reintroduced empty property rates relief? It would have a negative impact on Cornwall's economy and communities if office buildings discarded by the Council remain unoccupied.

The Council can only sell properties we own - and yield the proceeds for spending - once. If some sales make sense following the unitary reorganisation, the Council has a financial responsibility to consider whether selling, renting out, or reusing in other ways for the community constitutes best value. The Council is looking to provide more social housing - has it made an assessment of whether any of the office sites that it owns might be converted to housing or used for new housing? The former Carrick District Council site, for example, has been identified in draft local plans as suitable for housing.

If some of these Council office buildings are community assets, will local communities be given the opportunity to take them on? Even in situations where buildings require some refurbishment and maintenance, communities may aspire to do this. Despite delays with initial refurbishment followed by burst frozen pipes and flooding, Malabar community and childrens centre is making good use of the old Treyew primary school buildings. Politics aside, Labour in Government has encouraged community ownership and management of assets; and the Tories have trumpeted that they would introduce a 'community right to buy' (which is disingenuous given that buildings in public ownership have already been bought once by the community). If some of Cornwall Council's buildings are transferred to the community, they will come with their maintenance and repairs backlog which the published paper suggests the Council is eager to dispose of.

The paper also makes it clear that it's plans to dispose of office accommodation may mean the relocation of some one stop shops - I guess this may include the former Carrick District Council offices in Truro. The one stop shop there cost £20,000 to refit the Council reception area as a Council reception area (oh yes) last summer, and a section of the building's slate roof has also recently been replaced.

The Council expects to be able to make longterm reductions in it's carbon footprint by reducing it's office accommodation - not that this will make much difference to Cornwall's carbon emissions if offices are disposed of and reoccupied without being retrofitted, and hundreds of relocated staff have further to travel to the smaller number of sites retained as Council offices (Trades Union consultation is underway). It is fair to say however that plans to undertake some redevelopment and refurbishment at Dolcoath Avenue and new County Hall include improved provision for cycling to work.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Good governance - more important than the Liberal Democrats

BBC Radio Cornwall today interviewed Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne who was visiting Cornwall in his role as their home affairs spokesperson.

Perhaps Chris Huhne MP doesn't know that in Truro and Falmouth constituency, at local elections last year, the Liberal Democrats were in third place and they now hold just one in six (4) of the council seats in this constituency. The voters' verdict was clear - people just don't want more of the same Liberal Democrat incompetence and poor governance: cuts to adult social care, threatened cuts to local fire services, Cornwall's only airport closed for three weeks in the run up to Christmas, planning permission refused (for good reasons) for the waste incinerator planned by the Council, and independent audit reports criticising their financial management. Chris Huhne MP claimed Liberal Democrats 'look after ordinary people' - try telling that to those who had their adult social care cut in Cornwall, or those rightly concerned about their child protection legacy here.

When a BBC Radio Cornwall caller today said that 'good governance' is more important to people than Party politics, Chris Huhne MP said he agreed 'entirely' - focusing swiftly on national politics. But the only Party locally that is refusing to work as part of the 'No Overall Control' Council leadership to deliver better governance for people in Cornwall is the Liberal Democrats.

Last year the Tories' voteshare here also fell compared to 2007, so that they now hold one in three (8) of the Cornwall Council seats in this constituency.

Two for joy (again!)

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the fact that my youngest cousin and my niece were both expecting first babies due at similar times. Luke and Stanley will be two this year. Last year, Luke's younger brother Tom also joined the family. I heard this weekend that my nephew and his partner, who married last year, are expecting twins.

Extended maternity leave, paternity leave, childcare vouchers, free nursery places, Sure Start and children's centres are making a difference for this generation of parents with young families. Before the general election, as well as the leaders' debates, there need to be detailed policy debates to draw out the differences between the two main Parties on issues which make such a big difference to people everyday.