Friday, 31 December 2010

Shiny happy people

Anyone concerned what might result from the current enthusiasm among land owners for solar-powered electricity generation could do worse than pay attention to next week's Strategic Planning Committee meeting at County Hall, which is being advised to approve a 36.5-acre solar farm at North Petherwin, near Launceston.

The generous (ie tax-funded) feed-in tariffs for photo-voltaic (PV) energy mean landowners can't lose. Solar farm developers, in this case German-owned Kronos Solar, are in line for huge profits. As the company's own website advises potential investors:
"The risk-return relationship of PV is unrivaled (sic). With the Government's backing of the Feed-In-Tariff, revenues and hence returns for investors come state guaranteed."
Yet in terms of "green" energy, the forecast 5MW generated at North Petherwin is only slightly more than half that generated by the wind farm at Delabole.

In the coming months we will see how Cornwall Council's approach to solar energy develops. While welcoming the "potential billion pounds investment" some councillors are nervous about the planning issues implicit in such a land-hungry technology.

Up at Winsdon Farm, North Petherwin, the local parish council is leading objections to the Kronos application. Wildlife groups want studies into the effects of the development on bats and badgers. The Council for the Protection of Rural England (Cornwall) is concerned about the impact on landscape.

Despite this, council planning officials recommend approval at Thursday's meeting. The previous day, members of the Environment & Economy Overview & Scutiny Committee will be encouraged to get a grip of the whole "green energy" agenda. Officials say:
"There has never been a strategically approved mechanism / delivery plan to underpin the achievement of the Council's carbon reduction and energy self-sufficiency targets. Similarly there is no renewable energy delivery plan for the whole of Cornwall. The Council is opening itself up to criticism if it does not have a robust strategic delivery plan for its own well publicised programme."

For a reminder of the more general issues involved in the solar energy gold rush, my earlier blog post is here.

Best behaviour, please

Fingernails clean? Shoes polished? Stand up straight! Sorry, too much Dickens over Christmas. The way that Cornwall Council cares for children is to be the subject of another Ofsted inspection next month, with fieldwork due 10th-21st January and the final report expected around the end of February. Let's hope enough social workers have managed to shake off their winter 'flu. As we say in Hackland, it's a story either way.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Why your road wasn't gritted

Listeners to BBC Radio Cornwall will be familiar with complaints that during the recent cold weather Cornwall Council did not do enough to grit minor roads to rural communities. The council's response was that with more than 4,500 miles of road in Cornwall it is simply not possible to grit every square inch, and so priority is given to the 20% of roads which carry 80% of the traffic.

Some listeners, particularly those whose villages are just yards from a (gritted) main trunk road, were still not happy. Others thought that the council should also grit unadopted estate roads, and even pavements.

The framework which establishes the gritting priorities is to be found here - a national policy document in the form of a Code of Practice, which runs to 316 pages and which has its roots at the Department of Transport's research centre at Weybridge in Surrey.

There are lots of words in this document (gritting priorities are on page 174) and most of the advice can be summarised in just two: "common sense." Councils are told to weigh up lots of conflicting interests, including value for taxpayers' money, and make their own judgements about how to cope.

Now that daytime temperatures have returned to double figures I suspect the fuss will also melt away. But there are issues to be explored - such as local town and parish councils taking more responsibility (and raising their taxes?) - and lessons learned. Including the one about how good government is not always popular with all of the people all of the time.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Those awkward Christmas Day moments

Readers with sharp memories might recall that a few months ago I used this blog to shamelessly appeal to family and friends for a copy of Keith Richards biography as a November birthday present. No luck in November, but yesterday, as the trail of wrapping paper spread throughout the house, it soon became obvious that I had been given two copies. Oops. Still, it's the thoughts that count. And I wonder what Newquay & St Austell MP Stephen Gilbert was thinking when he posted this Christmas Day Tweet: "Stephen Gilbert MP is the proud owner of an actual studded whip."

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

News from the gallops

Bookmakers William Hill are offering odds of 4/1 that cracks in the coalition will lead to a General Election during 2011.



George Eustice gets his man

Cornwall Council has announced that Sir John Banham is to be the chairman of the new Local Enterprise Partnership, the new quango set up to spend taxpayers' money once the Regional Development Agency finally turns up its toes in 2012.

According the council's press release:
"Sir John's name was originally suggested at a meeting of private sector representatives convened by Camborne and Redruth MP George Eustice in November, and was then subsequently endorsed by the board of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Economic Forum."
I've asked the council for more details. Such as whether any other names were considered by the Economic Forum. The council statement also says:
"Given the intensive nature of the work required, Johnson Matthey, the company that Sir John currently chairs, has been recompensed for the time that he has committed to addressing the areas such as low cost green energy for Cornwall, connectivity, creating vibrant rural communities and affordable housing."
Naturally, given its enthusiasm for openness and transparency, the council will be keen to tell us how much compensation is being paid to Johnson Matthey...

STOP PRESS: The council just phoned to tell me that the amount of compensation paid to Johnson Matthey "is under discussion." Sir John's name was "the only name put forward by the private sector." The council is currently providing the secretariat to the the LEP.

Hmmm. The more I think about this, the more questions spring to mind. Were any names put forward by the public sector? What are the rules governing the appointment of a chairman - where does the authority come from to make such an appointment? Lest we forget, the man with the Midas touch who approved the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly LEP was.....Vince Cable.

The latest email exchange:

Were any "public sector" names considered to chair the LEP, and if so, who? I would be surprised if the council leader was not considered - are you able to confirm whether he was or was not?
No public names were considered - the Government made quite clear that LEPs should be private sector led (and chaired).
And as per my original email, who has appointed Sir John Banham? On what authority? Who made the rules? John was quoted in the WMN saying he had been asked "by the council" to chair the LEP - really? Who in the council has such power to make the appointment?
Sir John is the founding chair for the LEP. The Council will be working with him, the Chamber of Commerce, FSB and other partners to ensure a transparent 'Nolan' process for LEP Board members and thus, in turn, a formally appointed Chairman. He was put forward as a name by a number of representatives from the private sector as well as Chamber of Commerce. The Council has facilitated this to happen in lieu of the LEP being established (it is not yet a formally constituted body) and his appointment was endorsed by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Economic Forum.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Camborne North runners and riders

Here is the statement as to persons nominated for the Cornwall Council by-election to be held on 13th January:

Mike Champion (Mebyon Kernow)
Paul Holmes (Liberal Party)
Jacqueline Merrick (Green Party)
Anna Pascoe (Liberal Democrats)
Denise Pascoe (Conservative Party)
Jude Robinson (Labour & Co-operative Party)

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Promises, promises

Stephen Gilbert & Laurence Reed from Graham Smith on Vimeo.

Newquay & St Austell's Stephen Gilbert was the only one of Cornwall's six MPs to break a pre-election promise when he voted to raise university tuitition fees last week. The Conservatives had never claimed they would do anything else; Stephen's Lib Dem colleagues Dan Rogerson and Andrew George kept their pre-election pledge and voted against the fees increase. Which matters more - the policy or the promise? On Friday, my BBC Radio Cornwall colleague Laurence Reed came as close as anyone to finding out. In my opinion, this is one of the best radio interviews of the year.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Some thoughts from a think tank

Those thought-provoking people at Democratic Audit have sent me a very interesting pamphlet about the Parliamentary Voting Systems & Constituencies Bill. Here's an extract:
The DEVONWALL problem: territory and identity
The 'Devonwall' problem is where the arithmetic and geography demand the violation of a boundary that has a very strong basis in community identity. The difference between Cornwall and Devon is long-established and clear, but the Bill's boundary rules will involve a constituency that straddles this frontier. The two parts of the constituency will never gel properly. As David Cameron observed, the Tamar is not the Amazon, but representation is about the communities that people feel and live in, and local identities are important. It seems oddly centralist and non-conservative to disrespect these feelings.
There have been protests already, supported by all the Cornish MPs and the local authority, that Cornwall should be kept whole. While it is an extreme case, the Bill risks similar unpopularity in other areas, rather like the rationalist imposition of the Heath-Walker local government reforms in 1972-74 - anyone proposing a 'Luton West & Dunstable' seat would be well advised to stay away from Dunstable, for instance.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Dear John

A very unusual letter from Jane Henderson, chief exec of the South West Regional Development Agency, to businesses who thought they had investment deals:
"I sincerely hope, but cannot completely guarantee, that we will be able to manage things by agreement without unilaterally breaking contractual arrangements."
Lawyers on standby.

Dan Rogerson voted against government on tuition fees

North Cornwall's Lib Dem MP Dan Rogerson tells me he has just voted against the increase in university tuition fees. The government majority was 21.

Localism Bill on Monday

Eric Pickles Tweets to say "Localism Bill will be introduced on Monday. Lots of power to councils."

A new group on the horizon at County Hall?

I hate stories like this because no-one will go on the record. But I have to ask - how independent is the 31-strong Independent group of Cornwall councillors? Too independent by half, according to those who try to fathom the group's approach to policy-making - "like trying to herd cats," one Indie Cabinet member tells me.

After leading the Independent group for 18 months, Stoke Climsland councillor Neil Burden has decided not to run when the group is asked to chose a new leader early next month. He will however remain the Cabinet member responsible for Children, Schools and Families, and it's far too early to start writing his political obituary.

Some of the Indies are now twisting the arm of Roche councillor John Wood, asking him to lead them into the brave new post-budget world. But some other Indie group members say they were quite content with Neil's stewardship and wonder if a rival candidate will emerge.

Will the election be contested? Could the group split? Could it eventually cost the Conservatives their leadership of the council? What with the Camborne North by-election on 13th, January promises to be an extremely interesting month.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Barbarians at the gate (2)

A few months ago I expressed my fears for the long-term future of Cornwall's university at Falmouth. Yesterday the University College Union published this report, including Falmouth as one of 49 "at risk" as a result of the government's proposals for higher education. Indeed, the UCU identifies Falmouth as one of the 27 most at risk. The University tells me I shouldn't worry, claiming the UCU has failed to properly appreciate the popularity of arts, media, design and performance degrees. Let's hope so.

Plenty of time to sort out those pesky peers

My thanks to the Electoral Commission for clarifying that Monday's government defeat in the House of Lords need not be too much of a calamity for those who want the Alternative Vote referendum on 5th May.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act of 2000 sets the statutory framework for such things, and requires a minimum of 10 weeks before polling. This means the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill must gain Royal Assent before 24th February for a 5th May AV poll.

Stephen Gilbert says tuition fees hike "progressive"

Stephen Gilbert has just posted his weekly local newspaper column, revealing his thoughts on the university tuition fees issue ahead of tomorrow's vote.

Andrew George's statement on tuition fees

Andrew George says he'll vote against the government tomorrow.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

"Poll Tax and Iraq" moment approaches for Lib Dems

Congratulations to St Austell & Newquay MP Stephen Gilbert for passing another career milestone - turning down the opportunity to be interviewed on BBC Radio Cornwall. As far as we know this has never happened before.

The occasion was an invitation to discuss his approach to Thursday's vote on university tuition fees. My colleague Tamsin Melville tells me she is still waiting to hear back from North Cornwall's Dan Rogerson and St Ives's Andrew George, who have been strangely silent all day.

As I write this (Tuesday evening) the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party is in a huddle trying to work out what to do when push comes to shove. Some have suggested the issue will do for the Liberal Democrats what the Poll Tax did for the Conservatives in the late 1980s and the Iraq war did for Labour in 2003.

Rest assured that once the votes are in and Hansard duly published, the Lib Dems' opponents will make sure the record is fully reported, repeatedly, all the way to the next general election.

The new target: an extra sickie

Not sure you'd get away with this in the private sector. Cornwall Council is increasing its "target" number of annual sick days per employee from 8.5 to 9.5. Here's the official explanation:
"The target has been revised to reflect last year's actual absence levels. This should better take into account the impact on the workforce of the financial issues the Council is facing this year. Whilst performance against this new target now looks good, for the year up to the end of October, it should be remembered that we are now approaching the winter months, when sickness trends are higher, and that a great deal of organisational upheaval is expected to occur over the coming months as a result of the emergency budget."

Cornwall Council workforce 15% below strength

An interesting detail from the latest performance management statistics:

"- The 19,504 employees (size of workforce) is a head count of the number of people employed by the Council, not the number of positions.
- In addition there are 1,506 vacancies on our establishment (15.50% of all
posts, excluding Schools).
- Of those vacancies, 99 are "live" (being advertised).
- Of the employees on the redeployment list (a mechanism to reduce redundancy
by filling existing vacancies), 2 of those are already in job trials.
- To date, 16 employees have been successfully redeployed to other
neccessary, vacant posts rather than being made redundant."

A spanner in the works for Devonwall Bill?

Labour peers inflicted a four-vote defeat on the Devonwall Bill last night, over the timing of the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote system. The amendment carried in the Lords means the referendum could be held as late as October 2011, rather than 5th May as the government wants. The Bill must now return to the House of Commons where a whipped government vote will send it back to the Lords again: classic ping-pong. Conservative and Lib Dem peers see this as irritating and inconvenient, rather than fatal - the prospect looms of some very late night Parliamentary sittings in the run-up to Christmas.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

A total of 23 councillors - 18.6% of the total - did not vote in Friday's emergency budget debate at County Hall.

Four failed to send apologies: Irene Bailey (Independent), Brian Hobbs (Liberal Democrat), Denise Mutton (Conservative,) and Neil Plummer (Mebyon Kernow).

Apologies were received from Lisa Dolley, Mike Eddowes, Geoffrey Evans, Derek Holley, Ann Kerridge, Mary May, Sue Nicholas, Jan Powell, Chris Ridgers, Roy Taylor, George Trubody and Terry Wilkins.

Seven others had to leave before the end of the meeting, which had been re-scheduled at short notice because of poor weather.

Friday, 3 December 2010

A long day for texters and Tweeters in the council chamber

They started the council budget meeting five hours ago....and still the substantive votes have yet to appear on the horizon. Thanks to the texts and Tweets - and occasional views of the council's excellent webcasting service - I gather that so far councillors have voted 54 - 48 (with one abstention) against an ammendment which would have required any library closures to come before the full council; and by 63 - 39 (with one abstention) not to put extra money into Adult Social Care should the government come up with any additional cash. Another amendment designed to allow more time for leisure centres and swimming pools went down by 55 votes to 46. The libraries vote was closer than I expected and I'll be interested to see the attendance list - but that can wait til Monday!

How Sheryll topped the class

Sheryll Murray's expenses from Graham Smith on Vimeo.

Sheryll Murray bravely came out to play on BBC Radio Cornwall yesterday afternoon and defended her £15K+ expenses claims. I'll upload Martin Bailie's interview with her in a day or two. (Should be there now)

There is no suggestion that Sheryll claimed improperly for anything. But the new way of publishing details of MPs' expenses raises as many questions as it answers. For example, we cannot see the original receipt - so a claim for "office furniture" might or might not turn out to be a luxury rocking chair; we just don't know.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) gives us only a brief description of what an MP has claimed for. So Sheryll's claim of £12.50 for "repair to a borrowed computer" is no doubt entirely legitimate - but wouldn't it be fun to know how it got broken?

As a new MP Sheryll will have had several one-off start-up costs to get her office up and running. Expenses here include £303.43 for "reception chairs" and £79.31 for a carpet. There's a claim of £13.50 for keys, £3.45 for plates (for the office), £1.65 for a "starter for light fitting" and £4.04 for a light bulb. There are several even less detailed claims for "DIY" with the helpful suggestion to "see note" - which isn't available on-line. Sheryll also made multiple claims for the use of her own car. I repeat, all of these claims are within the rules.

I think IPSA appreciates that, at the moment, it is the watchdog which is at least as much on trial as the MPs. The website is very clunky and crashes repeatedly. The information is less complete than that which Parliament was eventually forced to disclose a few years ago.

On the plus side, the expenses claims will be published, routinely, three months in arrears. The next batch will be due out in February.

Newquay Airport update

Some interesting stuff going to the Newquay Airport Development Panel next week - not least news of attempts to attract another airline to use the airport from November 2011. Good luck with that one.

Passenger numbers are down 7.7% on the 2010/11 budget forecast, mainly due to the loss of Air South West routes. Income is nevertheless up 9%. New car parking equipment will be installed next month.

The crucial Southern Access Route - a new road, potentially opening up vast tracts of land for development - has been delayed until the first quarter of 2011 because of European Union rules on competitive tendering.

The 2011 Cornwall Council subsidy will be £3.4 million, compared with nearly £3.5 million today. There'll be a new business plan by February.

Council shortlisted for prize

Cornwall Council has been shortlisted for "most improved council of the year" award in Local Government Chronicle scheme. Hearty congratulations - but as I recall from my own school reports, "improved" was a word sometimes used to disguise true feelings.

Camelford Leisure Centre saved (for now)

Here's the gist of the deal worked out between County Hall and Camelford and which I expect to be endorsed at today's budget meeting in Truro:
Discussions with the senior representative for the management team at Camelford Leisure Centre and the allocation of £50,000 from the Leaders contingency have resulted in a plan which allows the Council to make a firm commitment to sustain the delivery of the leisure facility until 1st April 2012. This will give a period of 16 months to work with the management, school and the community to develop alternative delivery options.

So County Hall is giving Camelford sixteen months to make it work. The message seems to be: use it or lose it. This is a significant change from where we were two months ago and shows that community campaigns such as Camelford's clearly make a difference.

Incinerator, Plan B - £140,000 just to get started

Cornwall Council's Waste Development Advisory Panel has just been told that the planning inquiry to determine "yes or no" to the proposed St Dennis incinerator is unlikely to report before 21st April 2011 at the earliest, and more likely sometime in May. If the council's decision to refuse planning permission is upheld, only then will work start on thinking up an alternative waste strategy. The cost of researching and producing such a strategy - £140,000 (and please don't mention the incinerator's contractual issues.)

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Sorry, Sheryll

Several months ago I blogged that Sheryll Murray, South East Cornwall MP, had tweeted that she was in a standard class railway carriage while her St Austell and Newquay colleague Stephen Gilbert was in first class. I am very happy to accept Sheryll's assurance that it was not her who tweeted this (correct) information, and that I must have mis-read the identity of the original Eye Spy MP tweeter.

The variable cost of Cornwall's MPs

As you might expect, today's publication of MPs' expenses claims provides hacks like me with endless opportunities for harmless fun. Here are the headlines:
Sheryll Murray - £15,755.12
Stephen Gilbert - £7,619.93
Dan Rogerson - £5,095.07
Andrew George - £4,339.27
Sarah Newton - £3,877.50
George Eustice - £498.86

So why was Sheryll 32 times as expensive as George? Good question. No doubt more details in due course.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Devonwall Bill update

The government last night won two votes in the House of Lords concerning the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There were two divisions, with the government winning majorities of 76 and 27. The line-by-line committee stage continues on Monday.

Council constitution to be reviewed

This week's re-scheduling of Cornwall Council's emergency budget meeting raised questions (on this blog, if nowhere else) of the political propriety of vesting so much power in the hands of the chairman. I am not for a minute suggesting that there was any impropriety - political group leaders were consulted and did not object to the re-scheduling - but the question remains, what if there had been objections? What if 31 councillors had turned up on Tuesday and as a quorate group demanded to hold a meeting and fix the budget?

Richard Williams, who is also the council's monitoring officer, accepts that the constitution does not explicity give authority to the chairman to re-schedule a meeting once it has been called. He told me it was a "common sense" solution to concerns over public safety. But he also accepts that the constitution as currently framed might be open to abuse in future, with meetings re-scheduled at short notice simply for political convenience. So he is to review the document, possibly with a view to adding words such as "after consultation with political group leaders" to bring the chairman's powers more in line with those of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Congratulations to correspondent John Macloud for advancing the democratic process through this blog.

The "important and urgent" letter that took five months to write

Cornwall Council has finally written to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg about the issue of second home voter registration. The council's Electoral Review Panel asked for the letter to be written at a meeting on 2nd July. It was finally signed off and sent by email on 23rd November.

Yesterday evening I had a chat with the council's top legal eagle, Richard Williams, and asked him why it had taken so long. "Mea culpa," he said, accepting full responsibility and outlining a sequence of unfortunate events which he describes as belonging to the "cock-up" theory of history.

The very first line of the four-paragraph letter tells Clegg "I want to bring an important and urgent issue to your attention" - Richard tells me that no irony was intended. The letter describes the issue of second home voters as "a particularly acute problem in Cornwall" and in a three-page appendix recommends a 1998 suggestion from a constitutional law academic that people with more than one home should nominate a "prinicipal" place of residence for voting purposes - and vote only once. Richard says this principle should apply also to local council elections.

Richard said the research and typing required to produce this letter probably took half a day. He accepts fully that it should not have taken four months and 21 days for it to reach Nick Clegg. I think you can hear my interview with Richard about this on BBC Radio Cornwall tomorrow morning.

Letters from the editors

30th November 2010

Dear Graham

You can, of course, advance the argument 'that almost every word of most local newspapers in Cornwall is published by just three men', but I'm not sure it would stand up to much scrutiny. Wouldn't that be like attributing everything broadcast by the BBC to the Director General and ignoring the input of every one of the highly professional and talented journalist that works for the corporation?

I can only speak for Northcliffe titles but, having worked for the group for 15 years in several different companies and having been an editor of three of its newspapers, I can honestly say I have never received any directives regarding editorial content from anybody in Northcliffe, let alone the wider reaches of DMGT. Northcliffe's philosophy has always been to appoint local editors and to allow them to edit locally, and that is what it does.

The matter of the ownership of the media - and its concentration in the hands of a few individuals - is of course a valid topic for debate and I would be the first to agree that in terms of both free speech and commercial competition the ideal would be to have many owners. The practicalities of that are of course complex, and never more so than in a recession-gripped, free-market economy. I'm not defending or advancing that position, but if one was to be critical of your apparent take on 'us' it would appear rather easy to make lofty judgements about 'The Press we deserve' from the comfort of an ivory tower supported by the licence fee...

And there, of course, lies another debate.

A point of information: the Western Morning News belongs to South West Media Group - a Northcliffe company, yes, but separate from Cornwall and Devon Media.

Also, we have stopped publishing Brides In Cornwall, but there is the independent publication Wed which last time I looked was doing a grand job of catering to that specialist market.

Finally, dare I suggest it might be worth getting over your aversion to glossy mags and taking a look at Cornwall Today? I enjoy it. I'll even send you a copy if you like.


Richard Best

Editor, The West Briton; deputy editor, Cornwall & Devon Media Ltd.