Thursday, 8 December 2011

Whole lotta votin' going on

Next week sees an Extraordinary Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee which will be invited to note the Chief Executive's Report on The Progress of the Council.
I've asked the council to clarify this bit:
"The election for police commissioners next year gives us the opportunity to run referenda at the same time. We want to show Government what is important to Cornwall:
a. Should we remove the council tax discount on second homes?
b. Should we implement a grant for higher education?
c. Should we have control over the main roads into Cornwall so that we can dual and upgrade the A30 and A38?"
Does this mean that these three policy initiatives are now in some doubt? That their progress is subject to a positive outcome in referenda? How much officer time (and taxpayers'money) is to be spent on these issues before the referenda? Or might it be that referenda on these issues in November 2012 might be simply convenient, politically, for council elections in 2013?

And are these the only policies on which the people of Cornwall are to be given a vote? What about the health service reforms? Should Cornwall have its own currency, or even apply to join the Eurozone? Suggestions, please, for other referenda questions...

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Freedom from Information?

The number of entries posted on Cornwall Council's Freedom of Information disclosure log for November: nil.

Problems with this blog

I can only apologise to readers for the failure to update this blog in recent weeks. The continuing technical difficulties, which prevent me writing this from home (in my own time, of course) have meant a few weeks out of the office = no blogging. The security boffins are studying a variety of options and I hope they'll have a fix soon.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

In at 10, with a bullet

Cornwall Council just scrapes in to the top ten in the latest league table of local authorities, but I doubt there'll be much celebrating at County Hall. Big Brother Watch has dug up some fascinating data on how councils fail to manage the vast quantities of information at their disposal - and Cornwall is one of the worst.

Cornwall, we now know, has recorded 25 cases of information mismanagement in the last three years. The cock-ups included lost back-up tapes, cameras, mobile phones and data sticks -even sending out confidential details of workers' pay and conditions to companies tendering for council business.

As BBW comments:
"The information held by local authorities concern a wide range of services, requiring intimate personal information about the most vulnerable in society. The implications of this information being lost cannot be overstated, dealing with sensitive matters that under no circumstances should become public. With recent moves to allow local authorities to access more centrally-held personal information, for example details on benefits and earnings, the amount of data potentially at risk continues to grow."
Buckinghamshire was top of the BBW league, with 72 reported incidents.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Duchy of Cornwall is a public body, rules Tribunal

The BBC's legal correspondent Clive Coleman writes:

The First-tier Tribunal today decided that the Duchy of Cornwall is subject to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 ("EIR") and is required to deal with a request for environmental information relating to an oyster farm in Cornwall.

The request was made by a local resident Michael Bruton who was trying to find out if relevant consents and permissions had been given, and environmental assessments had taken place. The Tribunal concluded that, as they understood the Duchy's evidence, no Environmental Assessment of the Oyster Farm had been carried out.

The EIR are part of the freedom of information regime in the UK, which implement a European Directive which requires public authorities to disclose environmental information unless an exception applies.

The Duchy of Cornwall maintained that it was not a public authority under EIR and therefore did not have to deal with the request.

The Tribunal found that the Duchy of Cornwall was a public authority under Reg 2(2)(c) or (d) EIR - a body or other person that carries out functions of public administration or a body or other person under the control of such a body or person.

The Duchy is required to disclose the information or issue a refusal notice setting out which exceptions apply within 28 days of the Tribunal's decision.

STOP PRESS: Statement from the Duchy of Cornwall 
"The Duchy is reviewing the Tribunal's reasons for reaching its conclusion with a view to establishing whether to appeal the decision."
  I think Michael Bruton will be a guest on BBC Radio Cornwall's Breakfast programme tomorrow morning, just after 7am.

Kevin takes the shilling

Remember the September meeting of Cornwall Council?  The one which asked chief executive Kevin Lavery not to accept the invitation to be returning officer for the Devon and Cornwall police commissioner elections next year?

The issue troubling members was that the new commissioner will also have responsibility for policing in Devon.  Not just Cornwall.  I am not making this up.

Well Kevin has decided that the resolution of the full council - which went on (and on) to demand that a "strong delegation" be sent to lobby government for Cornwall to have its own police force - can be safely ignored.  Not only has the demand for an audience with Theresa May been sidelined, Kevin is defying the will of the council and is accepting the invitation.  He will be organising the police commissioner elections, and since he will do this in a personal capacity, to the benefit of election staff (in Cornwall as well as in Devon,) there is nothing the council can do about it.

The issue, now, becomes somewhat wider than just policing.  What is the point of 123 elected councillors?  Might they not just as well have stayed at home?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Empty homes or empty promises?

A short time ago I blogged about Cornwall Council's promise to use its powers of compulsory purchase to help deal with some of the county's 4,000 empty homes. So I was puzzled to find no mention of this exciting new policy in the draft budget, due to be presented to the full council next month. Here's the answer:
"There is no specific sum allocated for funding the compulsory purchase of homes - it is part of our overall strategy for bringing empty homes back into use and provide more affordable housing. Compulsory purchase would be the last resort and the funding for doing this would come from the £1.9m new homes bonus."
Cornwall's councils have had powers of compulsory purchase for many years - and have never, ever, used them. I've made a note to ask again, in 12 months, to find out how many of those 4,000 empty homes have been brought back into use.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The tortoise and the judge

I wonder what Judge Graham Cottle would advise Cornwall Council?

Cornwall Council by-elections

Two upcoming opportunities for voters to express an opinion on County Hall performance and associated issues. In Wendron ward, near Helston, polling will be on 24th November; nominations close 2nd November. Voters in Bude go to the polls tomorrow (Thursday).

Monday, 17 October 2011

Ask me another

Now here's an interesting thing. I asked this question:
"How often, if ever, has Cornwall Council started proceedings against anyone for starting work on a project without formal planning approval?"
And got this answer:
"The Council did not start work on constructing the access road to the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre without planning permission. A planning consent can be implemented as soon as a developer has complied with any pre commencement planning conditions relating to the application. In the case of the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre the application was granted planning permission by the Secretary of State on 19 May 2011. A letter confirming that the Council and SITA had complied with all the pre commencement planning conditions relating to the phase 1 works as set out by the Secretary of State in his appeal decision was sent out by the planning authority on 21 September 2011. As a result the Council was legally entitled to implement the consent in relation to phase 1 works from that date. The construction of the access and haul roads for the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre, which began on 26 September, formed part of these phase 1 works."

Spot the difference

From a Royal Cornwall Hospitals' Trust statement, about 15 minutes ago:

Following advice from clinicians and managers it has been decided to temporally defer the opening of Medical Ward 1 at West Cornwall. The original plan was to open the ward from 5th November following a programme of refurbishment during the summer.

Dr Paul Upton, Medical Director for RCHT, said: ""As we move into the winter months we expect increasing pressure on our medical beds. An extra medical ward has already been opened on the Treliske site to ensure we can continue to provide a safe and quality service to our patients."

From "Yes, Minister," 23 February 1981

[Discussing the opening up of St. Edward's hospital]

Sir Ian Whitchurch: "First of all, you have to sort out the smooth running of the hospital. Having patients around would be no help at all."
Sir Humphrey: "They just be in the way."

The politics of waste disposal

An interesting blog post from Cornwall councillor Dick Cole on the subject of last week's High Court melt-down of the corporate team's incinerator policy, and what he sees as the bullying of St Dennis. Suggestions, please, for alternative sites: The proposed stadium site at Threemilestone? Feock? Mylor yacht club? County Hall car park?

Finally, councillors talk tortoise

Tomorrow's meeting of Cornwall Council should hear this question from councillor Chris Pascoe:
"I would hope that the Council will ask central Government to clarify and amend the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act to prevent the anomaly of the Tortoise Sanctuary requiring a license. I also understand that it is the Cabinet's job to interpret this law so can there be a rethink on its interpretation so that we are not made to look so foolish in the eyes of the public? Instead of saying 'wild' animals, we could use the term 'dangerous' wild animals."
This is the first time that elected members, in any formal sense, will have had the opportunity to discuss something which has seen the council ridiculed in the national media and brought some extremely unpleasant emails into the inbox of the responsible Cabinet member, Lance Kennedy. If ever there was an issue which better demonstrated the marginalisation of councillors, and questioned their relevance to the running of County Hall, I'd like to know what it is.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Why the workers downed tools and left

One of the most telling images from St Dennis yesterday was that of construction workers leaving the site, following the High Court verdict that there was no valid planning permission for the waste incinerator.

Back in July I asked Cornwall Council cabinet member Julian German and Corporate Director for the Environment, Tom Flanagan, why work was starting ahead of the formal approval notice. They said that in view of the cost of delays (£1million per month in landfill and haulage costs) it was a risk worth taking. Work on clearing the site and building the access road started a few days later. Strangely, neither Julian nor Tom had anything to say yesterday.

But Cornwall Council's own website offers this helpful advice on the risks associated with jumping the gun:
"It is a criminal offence...this applies to those who carry out the works as well as those who order them to be done. Proceedings can be taken for the offence which can result in a large fine and/or imprisonment."

And the prosecuting authority? That would be Cornwall Council.

We must have been hacked

Today's Guardian.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Up in smoke

Newsflash - Anti-incinerator campaigners have won their legal challenge. Plans for £117million project in disarray. Listen to BBC Radio Cornwall for more details as they come in.

STOP PRESS - This from County Hall:

"Statement re CERC appeal

13 October 2011

The judgement of the High Court to uphold the legal challenge against the Secretary of State's decision to grant planning permission for the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre is extremely disappointing.

The decision by the Secretary of State to grant permission for the CERC was taken after considering the findings of a comprehensive planning process, including a robust public inquiry, and the subsequent report from the Planning Inspector. We understand that the Treasury Solicitor, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, has been granted leave to appeal.

The Council will be pressing for an early resolution as further delays will not only extend uncertainty over this process but could prove financially disastrous for people in Cornwall.

While it is not possible to accurately predict how long this issue will take to resolve, each month's delay costs the Council around £1m in landfill tax and haulage costs - creating serious implications for the Council's budget. This means a delay of up to six months would cost the Council at least £6 million - the equivalent of providing 400,000 hours of care for vulnerable people living at home, funding all the Council's community leisure facilities, keeping the streets of Cornwall clean for twelve months or repairing potholes and treating roads during the coming winter months. It would also be the equivalent of increasing council tax by 5%.

As a result of these additional pressures on the waste budget the Council will be meeting with SITA over the next few weeks to identify a series of interim measures to reduce costs and services throughout Cornwall.

We will now be considering the issues which have been highlighted by this decision in detail.


Note to editors

Please note that the Council is not doing interviews on this issue."

(Er, Didn't the elected council members vote to refuse planning consent? - Ed)

Up in smoke

Newsflash - Anti-incinerator campaigners have won their legal challenge. Plans for £117million project in disarray. Listen to BBC Radio Cornwall for more details as they come in.

STOP PRESS - This from County Hall:

"Statement re CERC appeal

13 October 2011

The judgement of the High Court to uphold the legal challenge against the Secretary of State's decision to grant planning permission for the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre is extremely disappointing.

The decision by the Secretary of State to grant permission for the CERC was taken after considering the findings of a comprehensive planning process, including a robust public inquiry, and the subsequent report from the Planning Inspector. We understand that the Treasury Solicitor, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, has been granted leave to appeal.

The Council will be pressing for an early resolution as further delays will not only extend uncertainty over this process but could prove financially disastrous for people in Cornwall.

While it is not possible to accurately predict how long this issue will take to resolve, each month's delay costs the Council around £1m in landfill tax and haulage costs - creating serious implications for the Council's budget. This means a delay of up to six months would cost the Council at least £6 million - the equivalent of providing 400,000 hours of care for vulnerable people living at home, funding all the Council's community leisure facilities, keeping the streets of Cornwall clean for twelve months or repairing potholes and treating roads during the coming winter months. It would also be the equivalent of increasing council tax by 5%.

As a result of these additional pressures on the waste budget the Council will be meeting with SITA over the next few weeks to identify a series of interim measures to reduce costs and services throughout Cornwall.

We will now be considering the issues which have been highlighted by this decision in detail.


Note to editors

Please note that the Council is not doing interviews on this issue."

(Er, Didn't the elected council members vote to refuse planning consent? - Ed)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Keeping faith

Yesterday's news that the government has approved St Michael's Catholic School as Cornwall's first Free School generally missed this footnote to the Department for Education's press release:
"The groups will now work to make their schools a reality. This includes undertaking a statutory consultation in their local area and taking steps to recruit their school's Principal Designate. Capital funding for these projects is still to be decided."
So not quite the done deal that first met the eye. St Michael's is due to open as a Free School in September next year.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

It happens

As Peninsula Community Health CIC gets into its second week, here's a cautionary tale from Surrey. Assura Medical is majority-owned by Virgin. Privatisation of the National Health Service? Perish the thought!

Number 4, with a bullet

Not sure if this is the sort of league table that County Hall will want to publicise, but the Local Government Association has just published data showing that Cornwall Council ranks 4th in the list of authorities which has shed workers - 2,295 (15.2%) in 2010/11. Only Kent, Manchester and Norfolk got rid of more staff.

Monday, 10 October 2011

A penny for your thoughts

I'd be disappointed if, as a result of my previous post, some smarty-pants councillor didn't ask how many of Cornwall's journalists had read the budget. And so at the risk of making myself appear to be a smarty-pants too, I have to raise my hand...

One eye-catching piece of information which has escaped the council's official press release concerns council tax:
"The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced on 3 October 2011 that new support for local authorities to help them freeze council tax would be available for 2012/13. However, the release from HM Treasury states that it will be "a one-off grant equivalent to a 2½% council tax increase" that will be payable if council tax is frozen. This means that if the grant is accepted by the authority and council tax frozen the Council will have sufficient funding in 2012/13, but that in 2013/14 there will be a funding shortfall of circa £6m and therefore the council will have to implement service cuts to an equivalent sum or to raise council tax by 5%."
Council tax up 5%? Budget cuts of £6M? Probably not, but it means a political battle with the government to allow George Osborne's conference present to be spread over the four-year council budget, and to escape punitive capping of any subsequent increases in council tax.

The budget also proposes giving £150,000 of council tax payers' cash to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership "subject to the outcome of the review of the Economic Development Service and Cornwall Development Company not identifying an equal level of savings." Good luck there. I can't wait to see how much money the private sector is putting in to this quango, which of course is meant to be led by the private-sector.

There's a proposal aimed at fixing the entertaining car park farce which was a feature of last year's budget.
"The car park service income budget is reduced by £2.468m with 50% being met corporately and the remainder being met from savings from the Environment, Planning and Economy Directorate budget."

Some parts of the budget take an optimistic view of how the European Union might regard ideas such as the much-trumpeted £700,000 replacement for the Education Maintenance Allowance, or however much it might cost to dual the A30 at Temple.

A traditional, fundamental tenet of all EU funding is that the Euros should not be used for things which domestic governments ought properly to be doing themselves. And so while the European Social Fund, for example, might allow Convergence funds to be used for "skills and training" I will be fascinated to see how Brussels views its use as a replacement for a politically-inspired, and very recent, cut such as the abolition of EMA.

And if dualling the A30 at Temple was as simple as "de-trunking" then I do wonder why it hasn't been done before.

The budget also assumes a small income from solar collectors, of £25,000 rising to £100,000 over three years. Fingers crossed for good weather.

I'm sure that those council staff who lost jobs or saw their working conditions worsened over the past year will be thrilled at news of the 2010/11 £7million budget underspend. The author of the budget report can't quite believe his luck:
"This was a major achievement and was delivered without protest or strike action."
At least the staff can now look forward to incremental pay rises being restored next year, although the long-term future looks slightly less rosy: "In the longer term it is still planned to move towards a contribution related pay scheme for all employees linked to performance with a likely implementation date of 2013/14."

Performance-related pay for all council staff? Or just those on the fourth floor?

You can read the full budget document, and its appendixes, here.

How many councillors does it take to change a light bulb?

The budget process at County Hall is, of course, all over bar the shouting. Decisions were taken by a handful of people, in secret, in Star Chambers, and will be rubber-stamped by the Cornwall Council Cabinet on Wednesday. Next month, the full council will devote the best part of a day to a completely pointless debate. If last year's budget debate is anything to go by, about 20 per cent of councillors won't even bother to turn up. So in an attempt to make it interesting, I invite comments on the following odds:

How many councillors will actually read the budget document?
Fewer than 10: evens
10-20: 6/4
20-60: 11/2
60-100: 33/1
100-122: 100/1
All 123: 500/1

Theresa May couldn't make it up

On 6th September Cornwall Council passed a resolution demanding that a "strong delegation" be sent to visit Home Secretary Theresa May to demand all kinds of reviews, including one examining the case for a uniquely Cornish police force. I've been trying to find out who is to be on this "strong delegation" (and even more fun - who was considered, but then left off) and when it is to embark on its mission. The silence from County Hall suggests that the "strong delegation" isn't making quite the progress that members had hoped for.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Why do you read this blog?

As a relative newcomer to blogging (about 18 months now) I am still learning new gadgets. I recently came across Google Analytics, which tells me how many readers I have, and - very roughly - where they come from.

The gadget tells me how many pages have been viewed, which kind of internet browser was used, whether readers arrived dreckly or via a search engine, and how long was spent on the site. I think that, technically, "reader" simply means "unique computer terminal" but it's good enough for me.

So I have now learned that this blog today has 1,969 "absolutely unique visitors" from almost every continent on the planet. Apparently I even have one reader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Hi! Thanks for reading.) Provided the number of unique readers continues to increase, I'll report occasional updates. If it declines, I'll say no more about it.

Despite the wizardry, Google Analytics cannot tell me how many of this blog's readers are from Cornwall - although the vast majority are from within the UK. As part of my commitment to improving quality etc etc, I would welcome your thoughts about why anybody would read this blog. (I'm particularly curious if you're the guy in the DRC.)

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Tortoise reality abhors a political vacuum

I've always thought that the test of whether a law is good or bad is the extent to which it copes with harmless eccentrics. And by this yardstick, I have no hesitation in condemning the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act as a bad law.

Last week's over-excited headlines about the closure of Sticker's Tortoise Garden missed the slightly important point that this reliable source of amusement closes to the public at the end of September every year, as many of the tortoises bed-down for the winter.

For the sake of clarity - and because lawyers care what I write - I should make it clear that I am not describing the owner of the tortoise sanctuary, Joy Bloor, as eccentric. But since she has devoted the past 20 years of her life to caring for tortoises, I think I can safely describe her as harmless.

Without the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act, which (lest we forget) was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's first government, Daily Mail readers would not have been so easily incited to send some truly offensive letters to Cornwall Council's Lance Kennedy, who I also believe to be harmless and, in the case of Sticker's tortoises, more sinned-against than sinning.

As I have blogged previously, the 1981 Act provides a partial schedule of animals which should be considered (my emphasis) for licensing. It says nothing about tortoises, but clearly devolves responsibility for interpretation of the law to local authorities. This is why, for two decades, the former Restormel Borough Council stoically ignored invitations from the Born Free Foundation to investigate.

Over the past year I have received a number of emails from Defra confirming, in plain English, that Cornwall Council has absolute discretion in the matter of whether or not the Sticker Tortoise Garden is a zoo. I have forwarded a copy of the most recent Defra email to the council, who I have challenged to produce any correspondence from Defra which, in plain English, would force it to act one way or another.

The real problem with poorly drafted legislation is that no-one knows what to do. Everyone wants to do the best and be seen to fair, and so they summon professors and lawyers and seek the best possible advice from professional experts. And the trouble with this approach is that it leaves no room for politicians, who are left giggling or shouting on the sidelines when they should actually be centre-stage and taking responsibility.

More often than not, the professional experts are absolutely right and save the politicians from themselves. Without their official wisdom and advice, the politicians would make even bigger fools of themselves and quite possibly end up in jail.

But the question of whether or not tortoises belong in a zoo is actually a political question - the answer dependent upon your view of animal rights and plain common sense.

What would happen if Cornwall Council simply followed the example set by Restormel? What would happen if Cornwall Council challenged Defra to prosecute it for failing to enforce the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act? The answer, I suspect, is nothing at all - until Defra updated its discredited law and clarified the difference between a zoo and an animal sanctuary.

I find it bizarre that Sticker's Tortoise Garden could have generated so many acres of newsprint, mostly highly damaging to the council's reputation and at considerable cost to taxpayers, without once coming before any kind of council committee for debate.

And that's why I hope the council's Miscellaneous Licensing Committee, having temporarily run out of lap dancing clubs and sex shops to investigate, could provide us with even more fun by having Sticker's tortoises on the agenda for its next meeting.

Camelford sports centre running out of time

Tomorrow's meeting of Cornwall Council's Communities Overview & Scrutiny Committee is being asked to endorse a new "strategy for leisure" which, as we know, involves transferring county-owned sports centres to a new not-for-profit Trust.

A crucial question, which I'm sure will be asked at tomorrow's meeting, is whether or not the trust's business plan will include the sports centre at Camelford beyond the end of March 2012. A similar committee meeting last week voted 8-2 to recommend that Camelford should be included - but it is by no means certain that this view will prevail over the longer-term.

The decision on whether or not council tax payers continue to subsidise Camelford will effectively be taken, in secret, at one of the "Star Chamber" meetings involving only Cabinet members and senior officers. A rubber stamp will be applied at the scheduled Cabinet meeting next week.

There is no doubt that the Camelford sports centre is under-used, despite the great efforts made to increase membership in recent months. The facts of geography will not change and I don't see what anyone in Camelford can do to further increase the numbers. I'm not surprised that some County Hall cynics are now saying that the "use it or lose it" slogan which accompanied last year's council bail-out always had the feel of empty political rhetoric about it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Our friends in the north

A fascinating Cornwall Council by-election at Bude North and Stratton on 27th October. There are Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent candidates, contesting the seat formerly held by Lib Dem Nathan Bale. The next full round of Cornwall Council elections is in May 2013.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Magnificent Seven

from left, Dr John Lander, Nick Buckland OBE, Helen Newson, Kevin Baber, Jacquie Kessell, Michael Williams and Susan Bulley

Meet the seven people who comprise the board of Peninsula Community Health CIC, the not-for-profit, private, community interest company which from 1st October takes over responsibility for fourteen of Cornwall's community hospitals, district nurses, health visitors, speech and language therapists and minor injury units. Who owns Peninsula Community Health? It's a good question. At the moment, ownership rests with these seven - although not as shareholders. Kevin Baber told me recently that the intention is, eventually, to have a very large number of "members" drawn mainly from staff and patients' groups. Until then, I suspect, health unions will continue to express their fears that this whole NHS reorganisation is a slippery slope to privatisation.

Cornwall's councillor bloggers lead the way

Congratulations to Cornwall councillor Andrew Wallis, whose blog has shot up the Total Politics councillor rankings to number 6. Launceston's Alex Folkes is at number 7. Dick Cole and Jeremy Rowe are at 13 and 14 respectively. The Illogan blogger is at 16 and Labour's Jude Robinson at 27. That's six in the top 30. Well dones all round.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Cornwall to get tough on empty homes?

Compulsory purchase of empty homes (mp3)
Here is my un-edited interview with Cornwall Council cabinet member councillor Mark Kaczmarek, talking about using powers of compulsory purchase to deal with the county's 4,000 empty homes. I forgot to ask him if his (Conservative) cabinet colleagues agree with the idea...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Civic links

Some time ago I asked Cornwall Council about the £509.94 spent on "gifts and hospitality" in pursuit of the chairman's civic duties. Here's the answer:
"The Chairman keeps a small stock of civic gifts that she gives to visitors to the Council. This is something that all Council Chairmen have done over the years, paid from the Chairman's budget. In her civic role the Chairman welcomes all sorts of people to County Hall, including visitors from foreign countries. Some give her a gift as a symbol of friendship; it is important, and polite, that she reciprocates. In April the Chairman ordered some pairs of St Piran flag cufflinks, made of Cornish tin from a local company, at a cost of £34 each (this price includes VAT and a discount from the supplier). 15 pairs were originally ordered, but five pairs were then returned - leaving the Council with 10 pairs."
So far six have been "awarded" to the governor and assistant governor of Austria, the secretary of the Royal Cornwall Show and three senior military officers. There are four pairs left.

Death and taxes

Last month I asked the council:
"In June, the council spent £9,987.22 on the coroners' ledger for the removal of bodies. Can I find out how many of these were holidaymakers, and if there's a "re-charge" scheme to get the money back once families have been traced etc? Presumably in cases where there are no relatives, the taxpayer foots the bill."
And today I got the answer:
"The figure represents the removal of bodies by undertakers to the designated mortuary in cases of unexpected deaths. The bodies are removed for public health reasons. Some of these will be holidaymakers but the majority will be Cornish residents. We do not charge for the removal of the bodies of holiday makers or Cornish residents."

Coping with the cuts

I suppose that if you are going to cut services to disabled people, it is better to cause as little pain as possible.

The think-tank Demos and charity Scope have combined to put together a map, showing how well/badly local councils are coping. Cornwall is ranked as "good" coming 11th out of 152. The Isles of Scilly is 43rd, Devon 55th and Plymouth 62nd.

I don't pretend to understand the methodology. But in general terms I can see that if you have a reduced amount of money, it is a good idea to spend it wisely. I'd welcome the observations of those in the front-line.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Update on the councillors who were late with their tax

Interesting that so far only two members of Cornwall Council have had the courage to "out" themselves as among the 17 who at one time or another over the past two years had to be pursued before paying their council tax.

Last week council leader Alec Robertson roundly condemned councillors who were late with their taxes, and agreed with the suggestion that a voluntary register of members who had paid on time would improve openness and transparency. That's not the same as saying that it's a good idea, or that he planned to introduce such a register. So after today's Cabinet meeting I asked him.

"No, I don't think it's a good idea and I wouldn't support it," he told me. "We've been advised that there are Data Protection issues and I'm taking that advice."

I have now had the council's formal, written, reasons for refusing to disclose the names:
"This information is exempt under section 40 (personal information) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), as the information constitutes third party data. Section 40(2) provides that personal data about third parties is exempt information if one of the conditions set out in section 40(3) is satisfied. Under the FOI Act disclosure of this information would breach the fair processing principle contained in the Data Protection Act (DPA), where it would be unfair to that person."
The issue is now with the Information Commission.

There is more joy in heaven...

Congratulations to Miles Davis, the Cornwall Council press officer, who is soon to resume duties as a reporter on the West Briton newspaper. I'm sure I speak for many journalists when I welcome this return to the path of true righteousness.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

46, with a bullet

Many thanks to anyone who voted for me in this year's Total Politics blog awards. Number 46 in the UK's top 50 Media Blogs category. To infinity, and beyond...

Devonwall - a brief history

Remember when Nick Clegg said "there will be no rigid mathematical formula"? And then Democratic Audit simply crunched the numbers on the non-existent mathematical formula and told us exactly what would happen. The proposed boundary changes appear to cause particular difficulties for Lib Dem MPs Dan Rogerson and Stephen Gilbert. If you want to know how they voted on the third and final reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, you'll find the Hansard here.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Don't look now

Back in May a full meeting of Cornwall Council voted to allow broadcasters to film and record inside the council chamber. At this week's meeting, four months later, the cameras were still banned. So what's going on?

My inquiries reveal that there is something called the Member Development Working Group. It is chaired by the council chairman, councillor Pat Harvey. This working group
asked for a "draft protocol" to be agreed by them before returning to full Council.

I don't think the "draft protocol" can be a very difficult thing to draft. Broadcasters had no problems working their way around the former Cornwall County Council chamber prior to 2009.

The council tells me:
"As there are only two full council meetings this year and it is unlikely the draft protocol will have been agreed by the timescale for the October meeting and the November meeting will be considering the Council's budget , a report is scheduled to go before full Council in January. If the protocol is agreed at that meeting it is hoped that it could be implemented immediately afterwards."

All I can say is that the Member Development Working Group must have an extremely onerous workload for it to have been unable to agree the "protocols" for letting the cameras in.

Apparently meetings of the Member Development Working Group have been arranged to agree the draft protocol. I'd like to tell you more about it, such as when it plans to meet, and who its members are, but not only are broadcasters not allowed in to its meetings, neither are members of the public. It doesn't even publish its agendas.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

A top-sliced answer

Question: Please provide an estimate of the officer-time, and therefore the cost to council taxpayers, of dealing with the Sticker tortoises over the past three years."

We do not hold this data as we do not record time taken against tasks. The Council's Legal Services Team state that 12 hours and 54 minutes were spent between 13 July 2010 and the date of this request and their costs total £812.06. However, this cost is not directly invoiced to the Public Health and Protection Service; it is paid for via a top-slicing of service budgets in respect of legal advice and support throughout the year.

Cornwall's Angry Brigade on the march

Late on Tuesday Cornwall Council issued this statement, following the talkathon about who should be the returning officer for elections to chose a Devon and Cornwall Police Commissioner.
"They (the council) also agreed to send a strong cross party delegation to the Home Secretary to assert stronger Cornish representation in governance, opposition to Devonwall, assessment of case for Cornish Commissioner and police force, principle of democratic governance and accountability."
Councillors Andrew Wallis, Dick Cole and Jude Robinson have also blogged about this. I've asked the council to let me know the details of the "strong cross party delegation" - and the budget for the trip - because I'm quite confident it will be one of the most entertaining meetings of Theresa May's year.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Tortoise latest - are we nearly there yet?

As the rumpus over Sticker's tortoise sanctuary races towards the courts, I thought I'd helpfully draw readers' attention to this letter from Prime Minister David Cameron, sent to St Austell and Newquay MP Stephen Gilbert a couple of months ago.

Mr Cameron repeats the line which Defra has been telling me forever - that responsibility for all the definitions and interpretations of the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act rest with the local authority. Increasingly, I detect signs that Cornwall Council is seeking to hide behind its expert advice. So I phoned the principal expert, Peter Scott, a veterinary consultant. He confirmed that he sent the council a "mind map" which probably led to its current interpretation of the law. Like the council, he believes the legislation is flawed. But he was very interested to hear about David Cameron's letter, so I've sent him a copy.

I don't know if the Prime Minister is an expert on wildlife law or not. Probably not. But he is the Prime Minister. Incidentally, the council is due any day now to answer my Freedom of Information question about how much officer-time (and therefore cost to the public) has been spent in pursuit of Sticker's tortoises.

STOP PRESS: Peter Scott emails to say that the Prime Minister is not necessarily giving Cornwall Council the green light to interpret the legislation at it sees fit. He says Mr Cameron's observations are "not the same as interpreting whether its a zoo, or what is domesticated. The LA decide based on the legal definitions or guidance. A tortoise is clearly a wild animal, yes - often kept domestically. This is supported by the fact that many need registration under CITES - which domesticated species do not." He goes on to say: "My advice is register as a zoo and stop trying to fudge the definition because they are a worthy cause - which nobody disputes."

STOP STOP PRESS: Defra emails with admiral brevity (and clarity?): ""Local councils are responsible for administering the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 and for interpreting its provisions."

STOP STOP STOP PRESS: It seems this hare got running (see what I did there?) when the campaign group Born Free lodged a formal complaint about the tortoise sanctuary with the council. I hope to get Born Free on BBC Radio Cornwall in the next few days.

How to cut off your nose to spite your face

I wasn't at County Hall for yesterday's meeting of Cornwall Council, and eagerly await the recording of proceedings on the council's excellent webcasting service. I am particularly intrigued by the reports I've heard about whether or not the council's chief executive Kevin Lavery should be the returning officer for elections to chose a Devon and Cornwall Police Commissioner next year.

Apparently the idea of a Cornwall Council official getting his hands dirty by supervising elections which include people from Devon so outraged members that they would prefer the elections to be supervised from outside the county. The council appears to have ignored the fact that these are elections for the Devon & Cornwall Police Commissioner (the clue is in the title.)

Councillor Jude Robinson
has blogged on this and I hope to have more to say once I've seen the webcast.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Top Gear

Well done to Launceston Lib Dem councillor Alex Folkes for his dogged pursuit of this story, which I'm sure will ruffle a few feathers at County Hall. The £30,465 taxpayers appear to have forked out for the Audi A5 (0-60 in 6.4 seconds) sits uncomfortably alongside cuts to services and worsened conditions for Cornwall Council staff. The council tells me it disputes Alex's claims about its mileage guidelines but cannot yet comment on why a fire brigade manager would need such a high-spec vehicle at public expense.

STOP PRESS: From County Hall:
"With reference to the specification of vehicles provided for the use of senior officers in Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service, as with vehicles provided for senior officers in other emergency services, the vehicles need to be able to accommodate specialist communications and fire fighting equipment as officers may be called upon to attend major incidents. As CFRS covers a large geographical area, these officers may need to travel considerable distances to reach such an incident. The service also has cross border responsibilities with neighbouring authorities in Devon and so senior officers may need to be able to travel quickly to a scene outside Cornwall."

Question Time

This appears to be the only question from a member of the public to make it to the agenda for next week's meeting of Cornwall Council:

Non-Payment of Council Tax on Time
It is very disappointing that a number of Councillors who decide how this money is spent have set a bad example, as well as incurring unnecessary additional costs to the Council.
Does Cllr Robertson believe that the voters of Cornwall have a right to know the names of those Councillors who have let the people of Cornwall down?
Mr Harris
St Austell

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Safe in their hands

My thanks to the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust for sending me this document, which details the range of services available to you if you don't have time for that "free at the point of delivery" stuff which politicians spout when they want your vote.

It's a menu-with-prices, offering pretty much everything from botox injections for £193, amenity beds for £75/day (£97 if you want en-suite) all the way through to major inpatient treatment for several thousand pounds. The RCHT is now touting for business from private patients on its website.

The 2010 RCHT accounts show income generated for the Trust from private patients was £660,000, which of course was re-invested in the National Health Service. And of course there is nothing new about the relationship between the private healthcare sector and the NHS. But have a look at the Excel file - I think it's fascinating what you can get from the NHS (more easily) if you can afford it.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The news factory returns

Only a few more days to go. The summer holidays will be over, the kids back at school and normal service will be resumed at County Hall. This means members of the always-entertaining Miscellaneous Licensing Committee can get back to doing what they do best - debating the rights and wrongs of sex shops.

Proposals for a shop in Truro to deal in "personal products for adults" come back for consideration next Wednesday. A key part of the licensing process is the arrangement of any window displays.

One objector to the granting of a licence claims that such shops "arouse the interest of voyeurs and those given to depraved or licentious interests." Another points out that if you go upstairs on a double-decker bus and ride around Truro for long enough, you'll eventually drive past the shop and be level with the first-floor windows - and possibly be able to see everything.

No wonder August seemed so dull.

Senior Service en vacance?

Sheryll Murray on BBC Radio Cornwall (mp3)

South East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray on BBC Radio Cornwall last week: "....the Royal Navy broke up for their summer holidays..."

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Something to hide?

Much discussion on Cornwall Council's backbenches about the psychology of beards. I'm grateful to The Chronicle of Higher Education for this:
"A recent study in the Journal of Marketing Communications apparently found that men with beards were deemed more credible than those who were clean-shaven. The study showed participants pictures of men endorsing certain products. In some photos, the men were clean-shaven. In others, the same men had beards. Participants thought the men with beards had greater expertise and were significantly more trustworthy when they were endorsing products like cell phones and toothpaste. But, oddly, men with beards were slightly less effective than smooth-cheeked fellows in underwear advertisements."

Monday, 22 August 2011

Date set for incinerator legal challenge

Sometime in the week beginning 10th October, listed for one day.
STOP PRESS: Now two days, October 11 and 12.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Grub first, then ethics

A shame that the agenda for Tuesday's Review of Ethical Standards Sub Committee does not include the draft recommendations on conduct and sanctions. Time to introduce new measures (such as a published register?) to deal with councillors who are late with their council tax payments?

Too young to know?

Scratching away at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust appeal for 11-year-olds to boost its Foundation Trust membership drive, I learn that the regulator, Monitor, has this to say in its Guide for Applicants:
"1. A minimum age to be appointed as a governor should be included in the constitution, being at least 16 at the closing date for nominations.
2. Monitor will not specify a minimum age for members. It is for the trust to justify the age.
However, it should be noted that it is not permissible, pursuant to the 2006 Act to
establish lesser categories of membership, such as associate membership."
I was interested to note that the Cornwall Partnership Foundation Trust requires its members to be at least 14-years-old. And I was relieved to discover that Monitor requires all governors to maintain a register of interests. But I'm afraid I'm still none the wiser about how or why membership affords greater influence over hospital management - or indeed anything else - than that enjoyed by any other citizen.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Tories on top

Last night's by-election results:

Newquay Town Council (North Ward):
Phil Ley ( Liberal Democrats) 388
Lisa Shuttlewood (Conservative Party) 444

Torpoint Town Council
John Robert Campbell (The Conservative Party) 351
Joanne Frances Hunt 150

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Missing the bus

More than a year ago this blog drew attention to the threat facing rural bus routes. Later, while reporting the Star Chamber budget deliberations, I wrote:
"I have yet to find one single back-bench councillor who thinks it's a good idea to keep the £46,000 presence at the Royal Cornwall Show rather than make a similar size cut in rural bus subsidies - and yet this is precisely the choice recommended by the 10-member council Cabinet."
Tomorrow County Hall hosts a public meeting to debate the bus issues. Hear all about it on BBC Radio Cornwall's Breakfast programme tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Show a little trust

Clearly those who think the yoof of today have nothing better to do than riot should have asked the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust for a breakdown of those who have already volunteered to become Foundation Trust members:
11 year olds - 3 members
12 year olds - 21 members
13 year olds - 10 members
14 year olds - 15 members
15 year olds - 26 members
16 year olds - 11 members

These numbers will of course change once the membership drive gets into top gear. The Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust assures me that all of these children were "recruited" in Cornwall, although there is no residential qualification for membership. Indeed, there are very few reasons why anyone could not become a member. "A person may not become or continue as a Member of the Trust if:

- he is under 11 years of age at the date of his application or invitation to become a Member (as the case may be);

- he has demonstrated aggressive or violent behaviour (such as verbal assault, physical assault, violence or harassment) at any NHS hospital, NHS premises or NHS establishment against any of the Applicant Trust's (or as the case may be) the Trust's employees or other persons who exercise functions for the purposes of the Trust whether or not in circumstances leading to his removal or exclusion from any NHS hospital, premises or establishment;

- or he has been dismissed (otherwise than by reason of redundancy or ill-health) from a position of employment with the Trust."

If you spot benefits of membership which I've so far been been unable to grasp, please feel free to comment...

From the legal department

" Cornwall Council has a procedure in place whereby the Monitoring Officer is notified if any councillor could be in breach of section 106 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 due to non-payment of council tax. This enables the Monitoring Officer to advise the Member of his responsibilities under that section. In addition at the outset of any meeting of the Council where the business to be transacted comes within the provisions of section 106, general advice regarding Member responsibilities is provided in writing and verbally by the Chairman or the Monitoring Officer. The Council is confident, therefore, that no Member has committed an offence under this legislation."

Who's next?

Cornwall councillor Andrew Wallis confesses. Only 15 to go.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Transparency champion Bob says naming late tax payers is "a difficult decision"

Independent Cornwall councillor Bob Egerton, defender of all things to do with openness and transparency at County Hall, tells me that (a) he pays his council tax on time and (b) he has sympathy for those officials who had to decide whether or not to name any or all of the 17 councillors who were late with their payments over the past two years. "It's a difficult decision," he said. "While I don't condone anyone for being late with their council tax payment, I don't know their personal financial circumstances or what the reason might be. It's not obvious whether the officers should have named and shamed the members or not. I hope the Information Commission can make a speedy recommendation on this as it would help us all know where we stand in future."

Let those without sin cast the first stone

Full marks to Bodmin councillor Ann Kerridge, for allowing me to take her confession about her late payment of council tax:
"I am one of the one in seven. If I paid by direct debit I wouldn't be. However I made a choice quite a long time ago to pay in person at my local post office so they get a little revenue. One month I confess to forgetting, got a CC letter and paid almost immediately."
I think Ann is demonstrating commendable wisdom here, not least because she's a front bencher who speaks (for the Lib Dems) on finance issues. Within County Hall there are sheets of paper with the names of 17 late-payers. Some councillors have copies and some do not. This is unfair. While the council's reason for not releasing the information to everyone might well be motivated by a bureaucratic desire to observe the Data Protection Act, it defies every known law of political common sense.

PS: Before anyone asks, can I also confess to having once been late with the return of some library books.

Fame or shame?

Three Cornwall councillors deserve credit for volunteering the fact that they HAVE paid their council tax on time: Chris Ridgers, Scott Mann and Steve Double. Well done chaps. That still leaves 103 other members who have also paid their council tax on time, but whose status remains unclear.

An easier way to do this would be for the 17 late-payers to volunteer their identities. I'm hoping for guidance from the Information Commissioner, as to whether Cornwall Council should name the member who had to be taken to court before payment could be forced, later today.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Did you pay your council tax on time?

The warmest congratulations to The Falmouth Packet for its scoop about how one in seven Cornwall councillors failed to pay their council tax on time. Over the past two years, no fewer than 17 elected members needed reminders before paying their bills. One had to be threatened with court action.

The Information Commission is now considering whether the council should identify those responsible for wasting officer-time to recover more than £5,000 in unpaid taxes. The council claims it has obligations under the Data Protection Act to keep the names secret.

There are several issues here. Should councillors be treated any differently to ordinary citizens, who would not normally be named if they were simply late with their payments? Fourteen of the councillors needed a second reminder letter. Again, ordinary citizens would not normally be named.

The identity of the councillor who had to be dragged to court in order to extract payment is already in the public domain, although it will be difficult to find that name without the resources to trawl through thousands of official records. I would be surprised if, in the case of this individual, the Information Commission does not rule against the council and in favour of disclosure.

The Packet's story naturally prompts further questions. Are any of the 17 late-payers members of the council's Cabinet? Was it fair of the council to release this partial information, potentially damaging the reputations of 106 members who diligently paid their tax bills on time?

The council employs more than 19,000 people and I'd be amazed if all of them paid their tax bills on time - but who should be named and who should be treated like "ordinary citizens?" Those earning more than £50,000 a year? £80,000?

Within County Hall, lists are circulating which contain the names of all 17 late-paying councillors. Who should see these lists and who should not? Why does the Data Protection Act allow some councillors to know which of their colleagues are behind with payments, while others are denied this information?

There is a long-held convention in political life that people who seek election to positions of power and influence are not "ordinary citizens." Once elected, they do have to answer to a higher God. Should they seek re-election, you can rest assured that their political opponents will find a way of publishing the information.

So here's an opportunity for all members of Cornwall Council to clarify the situation and put the record straight. If you are one of the 106 members of the council who paid your tax on time, you can declare it publicly on this blog.

Lost in translation?

Cornwall Council tells me it has no record of any formal policy decision to change the name of "County Hall" to "Cornwall Hall" and that therefore the entry in Wikipedia must be in error. Possibly. The minutes of Bewnans Kernow from 4th October 2010 include this extract:
"A letter had been sent from the Secretary to the CEO of Cornwall Council in support of a name change for County Hall to Lys Kernow. It was noted that the sign at the entrance to Lys Kernow was now bilingual, even though the words are not a true translation. Members will be encouraged to use the Cornish version in correspondence and references."
An interesting concept - "bilingual" but "not a true translation." The possibilities are endless.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Compared with Philip, Kevin is a bargain

Isles of Scilly Council chief executive Philip Hygate is paid about £74,000 a year, less than half the annual £200,000 salary of Cornwall Council chief Kevin Lavery. Population of the Isles of Scilly: 2,153. Population of Cornwall: 535,000. Kevin therefore costs 37 pence per person. Philip costs £34.29 per person.

Wikipedia surely not wrong?

I don't remember this, but it's Cornwall Councill's entry in Wikipedia, and if it's in Wikipedia it must be true:
Name changes - On the creation of the new unitary authority it was decided that the name of the council would be changed from Cornwall County Council to Cornwall Council (Konsel Kernow). It has also been decided by the council to change the name of their meeting place from New County Hall to Lys Kernow (Cornwall Hall) so as to not use the term county

Someone should tell the council, whose website still insists on calling it County Hall.

Cornwall top for riots (once upon a time)

My thanks to Charlotte MacKenzie for this quote from Bernard Deacon:
"Bohstedt, quantifying the numbers of riots in the crisis decades of the 1790s and 1800s, found that the number of riots per 10,000 persons in Cornwall in this period was almost three times higher than in the most riot-prone parts of England - London, Nottinghamshire and Devon (Bohstedt, 1983, 239)."

Pursuit of the tortoises nears finish line

Cornwall Council tells me it is due to serve formal notice of its closure of Sticker's Tortoise Garden on 22nd September. The council insists the Tortoise Garden is a zoo and must have a licence. The council refuses to tell me how much officer-time (and cost to the taxpayer) has been spent on this issue and so, within 20 days, must now answer under Freedom of Information laws.

Stadium for Cornwall planning application goes in

Plans for a 10,000-seat stadium at Langarth Farm, Threemilestone, near Truro, have now been submitted formally to Cornwall Council. I wonder how many of those who have signed the petition in support of this £24 million project will also sign the inevitable petition opposed to the associated planning application, for a 1,500-dwelling housing estate?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A shameless appeal for votes

The Total Politics Blog Awards for 2011 are now open for votes.
Just thought I'd mention it.

Cornwall's riots

No shortage of rioting in Cornish history: the Camborne riots of 1873, apparently started by a dispute over a village cricket match; the "Little Ireland" riots of 1882, again in Camborne, over the bullying of local Catholics and the Newlyn riots of 1896, over the ever-thorny issue of landing fish on Sundays. I believe there are earlier records of food riots in Cornwall, notably in Redruth.

Cornwall misses out on local TV

The government has today published this list of places where it is considering new Independent television franchises. Cornwall isn't on it. Plymouth and Barnstaple are the nearest.

Cornwall's anarchists slow to riot

Please don't take this as a sign of disappointment, but the Kernow Anarchist Network has not updated its website since 15th December. Possibly an internal dispute over whose turn it was?

London's Burning

Interesting that many of the London residents interviewed on the news appear to blame the recent rioting at least partly on an absence of police. How times change. Thirty years ago I found myself driving down Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, South London, on the eve of what developed into a pitched battle. Lord Scarman's subsequent report described the Metropolitan police as "an occupying army." Meanwhile, here in the 21st century, Devon & Cornwall police "monitor social networking sites" as their contribution to maintaining law and order. I gather an announcement is due shortly on how many officers are to be sent from Devon & Cornwall to help reclaim the streets. The overtime bill is going to be horrendous.

STOP PRESS: 25 Devon & Cornwall police sent to London "for several days."

Monday, 8 August 2011

Time to start counting our spoons?

When the fanfare of trumpets last month announced a transformation in the way Cornwall Council delivers services it seemed too good to be true: saving £10 million of taxpayers' money while protecting 3,000 existing council jobs. A miracle?

Now that we're starting to see the detail, it might be time to pause and consider. Next week's Audit Committee, warned of the "significant risks" inherent in this project, will be told of 50 posts "removed from the current restructure..."

The County Hall mantra for the past couple of years has been how Cornwall is to become a "commissioning council" which secures best value by "outsourcing" (the 21st century word for 1980s-style privatisation.) Maybe I'm just a cynical doom-monger who always thinks the worst, but might it not be a good idea to see what happens at Suffolk county council before the restructuring becomes irreversible?

Time to start counting our spoons?

When the fanfare of trumpets last month announced a transformation in the way Cornwall Council delivers services it seemed too good to be true: saving £10 million of taxpayers' money while protecting 3,000 existing council jobs. A miracle?

Now that we're starting to see the detail, it might be time to pause and consider. Next week's Audit Committee, warned of the "significant risks" inherent in this project, will be told of 50 posts "removed from the current restructure..."

The County Hall mantra for the past couple of years has been how Cornwall is to become a "commissioning council" which secures best value by "outsourcing" (the 21st century word for 1980s-style privatisation.) Maybe I'm just a cynical doom-monger who always thinks the worst, but might it not be a good idea to see what happens at Suffolk county council before the restructuring becomes irreversible?

Not telling the whole story

My not-totally-serious suggestion that Cornwall Council would soon be facing Freedom of Information questions about, er, Freedom of Information questions has come spookily true even faster than I thought. But it is indeed the case that without an FoI question, we would not know that when the council is hauled before the Information Commissioner to justify its refusal to release information required under FoI, it has a losing record of 8-1.

New car parking charges triumph

Revenue from Tregantle car park, near Torpoint, May 2010: £579
Revenue from Tregantle car park, near Torpoint, May 2011: £4.58

A despatch from the posh seats

First class train journeys 1 April 2009 - 31 March 2011:

Kevin Lavery - Chief Executive

23.04.09 York to London,1st class return, £199, Meeting with Treasury

21.10.09 Gatwick to Brighton, no class option £20.4 Solace Annual Conference

13.11.09 London to York, 1st class single £111.50 return from meeting with Department of children, Families and Schools (DCFS)

20.01.10 Truro to London 1st class return £180 Meeting at House of Commons

15.02.10 York/London/Truro 1st class singles £282.50 Meeting with DCFS in London

18.03.11 London to Truro 1st class single £189.50 return from Soft Market Testing
"First class travel has to be justified in individual cases based on the travel options available for a particular journey and the need for the Chief Executive to work during the journey."
Gill Steward - Head of Communities

2.12.10 London Paddington - St Austell - returning from a meeting in London about the development of Shared Services - £96

1.4.11 London Paddington - St Austell - returning from attending a Shared Services Forum with other Authorities - £114
"First class rail travel was arranged to enable the Director to work on the
journey back."
The following senior figures at Cornwall Council have made no claims for first class rail travel in the past two years: Paul Masters (Assistant Chief Executive), Kim Carey (Adult Social Care director), Michael Crich (Corporate Resources director), Tom Flanagan (Environment, Planning and Economy director), Trevor Doughty (Children, Schools and Families director), Alec Robertson (leader of the council) and Graeme Hicks (cabinet member.)

Friday, 5 August 2011

Too much information?

Was there ever any doubt that some Freedom of Information requests are politically-motivated? Cornwall Council has today answered (at a cost to the taxpayer of about £150) a question which could surely have been dealt with by other means: the details of allowances claimed annually by three individual Liberal Democrat councillors in Penzance. Coming soon - FoI questions to find out who is asking FoI questions. Yawn.

I feel that old age coming on

I know this is an old story but the fine detail had previously escaped me: people in some parts of Cornwall can expect to live longer than others. According to the Office for National Statistics, by the year 2033, folk in the former Caradon, North Cornwall and Penwith districts can expect to live up to eight years more than the UK national average. In the former Kerrier, Carrick and Restormel districts its closer to four years more. If you don't want to hang around too long, try moving to Glasgow where the additional life expectancy by 2033 is a mere 0.1 year, or (nearly) 37 days.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Life is a sum of all your choices

Well done Cornwall Council, whose members will next week be told:
"For the 2011/12 school year, 5125 on-time applications were received for a place in secondary school. 5096 of these (99.4%) were offered a place in their first preference school. This meant Cornwall was ranked second of all local authorities in England for pupils being offered a place in their first preference secondary school. Five appeals were lodged by parents where pupils had been refused a place; two were upheld and the remaining three refused."
Interestingly the story is not so good for Cornwall's primary schools, where more than 600 parents failed to get their applications in on time and only 92% have got the school of their choice.

A suitable case for treatment

Anyone know where I can find out more about the NHS treatment of fee-paying private patients in Cornwall? The Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust is clearly keen on this line of work, advertising on its website. Does anyone else spot any irony in this bit: -
"Our pricing policy is based on the principle that it should be simple, open and fair. Our prices are also highly competitive. We never forget that the main reason we are here is to provide all our patients with the best possible treatment and care. All prices are quoted inclusive of VAT."
All our patients?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A poor relation?

There's growing concern in Camelford that the town's leisure centre might be excluded from the "Cornish family" of leisure services included in the portfolio about to be handed over to a charitable trust. Cornwall Council tells me:
"The trust is still in the process of being established. A final decision on whether Camelford Leisure Centre would be included in the trust has not yet been taken."
Looks like the celebrations which accompanied December's £50,000 tide-over from County Hall might have been premature.

Council by-elections tell an interesting story

Full marks to Cornwall Councillor Jude Robinson for crunching the numbers - there's nothing quite like election results (as opposed to opinion polls) to tell us which way the wind is blowing. Of course, local council by-elections are full of anomalies, such as bizarre local issues, candidates known better for personality than policy etc, but give me results rather than forecasts any day. The numbers don't add up to 100% because not all parties (including Independents) contested every by-election, but tell us the average vote share when candidates entered the field.

Independents: 40%
Labour 36%
Conservatives 34%
Lib Dems 24%
Greens 18%
Mebyon Kernow 11%

11-year-olds invited to run Cornwall's hospitals

Listeners to this morning's Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Cornwall will have heard the management of the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust telling us it faces a challenge "of Everest proportions" to achieve its goal of Foundation status, which would afford it greater autonomy on budgets, including the capacity to increase the number of fee-paying private patients treated at Cornwall's only large general hospital. The Trust's website includes this invitation to Cornwall's schoolchildren:
To become a Foundation Trust we need to sign-up lots of members. Anyone can be a member if they are aged 11 or over. Our members can vote for the Council of Governors or stand as a Governor. How involved you are is up to you. As a member you will:
* have a say in what we do
* be helping to keep our hospitals under local control
* receive invitations to free 'members only' events
* receive regular newsletters
* save money with the NHS discount scheme.
I'm really curious about the bit which says "helping to keep our hospitals under local control." Perhaps I'm missing something, but isn't the primary function of hospitals to heal the sick? So why does it matter so much about the personality of the management team? And will Foundation Trust members have more of a say in the running of our hospitals than non-members? I have asked the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust how many 11-year-olds have so far applied to become Foundation Trust members. Let's hope they belong to that cohort which got good SATS results.

Between a blog and a hard place

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that in recent weeks I've been blogging far less than usual - and might be in search of an explanation. Back in June the BBC discovered a security issue with its blogging software which made it vulnerable to hacking. The "temporary" solution, still in place, is that only BBC computers can be used for writing BBC blogs. As this blog is written in my spare time, from home (and of course, for no extra pay) I was stuffed. My solution is to arrive at work earlier, and leave later. I hope your appreciation index will rise appropriately.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Jan Powell writes...

"I am releasing this public statement through my solicitor in order to put on record the way that I have been treated by the leader of Cornwall Council, Mr Alec Robertson.

"It is widely known that Councillor Robertson reversed his earlier nomination of me to membership, and therefore by default chair, of the Health and Adult Overview Scrutiny Committee. What is not so widely known is the reasons given by Councillor Robertson. That has perhaps left the impression of some perceived wrongdoing on my part. I wish to take this opportunity of putting the record straight.

"Councillor Robertson informed me of his decision in a letter written from him on Cornwall Council headed notepaper in his capacity as Leader of the Council. One of the main reasons he gave amounted to the fact that he was calling into question my ability to act impartially given the fact that I have an adult disabled daughter who is a service user of provision made by the Council. He thought that this might mean that I would be unable to consider the need for cuts by Cornwall Council in an unbiased way. I find this allegation both deeply distressing and offensive at the same time.

"To suggest that parents of disabled people, or indeed anyone having a close relative receiving or likely to receive a provision in the future, are unable to put that to one side when making rational decisions is a shocking view to hold. I am concerned for the principle this advocates when there exists a very structured process in Cornwall Council to allow people in this position to understand their obligations and to act responsibly and objectively.

"I have therefore asked Councillor Robertson to apologise personally. I have also asked Cornwall Council to apologise given the fact that the offending letter was purportedly sent on its behalf.

"Cornwall Council has now disassociated itself from the letter making it clear that it had no knowledge of the letter which was written by Councillor Robertson personally and which therefore should neither have been written on their notepaper nor through their resource.

"I have received no apology from Councillor Robertson and he has indicated that he will not do so.

"It is clear that I cannot work with Councillor Robertson nor his party. I have therefore returned to the Liberal Democrats in order that I can continue serving the public to the best of my ability."

BBC Radio Cornwalll has so far been unable to contact Mr Robertson, but he has previously said he was unable to comment because it is an "internal party matter".

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Bolted horses and stable doors

Thursday sees a more-interesting-than-usual meeting of Cornwall Council's Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which will consider a detailed report on "Telegraph-gate" - the public relations disaster about extravagant credit card spending sprees which turned out to be all smoke and no fire.

The report urges "robust action" to make sure that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing, but casts no blame on any individual. And in the best example of corporate understatement I've seen for a while, says: "policy documents could benefit from a refresh."

A question of trust

I've just commissioned myself to write this blog post, and I can tell it's going to be really good. And definitely not a cheap, cynical joke at the expense of Cornwall Council, who commissioned a report into its own Adult Social Care - a report which concluded the department is now "performing well."

I've asked the council for a list of other self-commissioned reports, and will be particularly keen to find those which are critical of the council. To be fair, the Care Quality Commission no longer assesses councils, and is introducing a system of "local accounts" whereby councils commission their own reports.

Are we feeling confident yet?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Failed Isles of Scilly link wasted nearly £4m

Back in May, Cornwall Council said it had spent more than £700,000 in pursuit of its "Option A" for the redevelopment of Penzance harbour. The council has now published more details:
"Overall the IOSL scheme has cost £3.850m, this is funded from £1.317m
of third party funding and £2.533m of Council funding."

None of this is made up

Cornwall Council compensation payments to school pupils for personal injuries in the last financial year:

  • Fell from workbench when attending lecture - £30,450

  • Stone thrown by child unintentionally hit claimant - £10,000

  • Gate fell onto claimant when attempted to climb - £2,100

  • Splinter injury when sliding on wooden bench - £2,500

  • Teaching assistant kicked a ball which hit claimant - £2,000

Source: FoI disclosure log
No doubt the council's insurers advised it was cheaper to pay up, rather than risk a court case.

Yet another one of those pesky FOI questions...

Please can you give details of how much the council has spent on general refreshments, and what type of refreshments were bought, during the period April 1, 2010 to April 1, 2011?
Teas & coffee £41,106
Working lunches & buffet £30,230
Members' refreshments £18,460
Civic functions £17,881
Milk £967
Total £108,644

Monday, 11 July 2011

Bude Free School looks less likely

Plans for a 750-pupil Bude Independent Grammar School have failed to pass the first hurdle at the Department for Education and are not included in the first wave of applications selected to progress to either the pre-opening stage or the development of a business case to create a free school. The idea originated with Yorkshire Nationwide Schools, whose Facebook page has yet to reflect the latest DfE thinking. I've asked YNS if it plans to re-submit its Bude proposals for consideration in the next wave of free school applications, and will report the answer when I get it.

Friday, 1 July 2011

St Dennis incinerator decision goes to court

Residents of the china clay area have launched their legal challenge to the Secretary of State's approval of the St Dennis incinerator project. The first phase will be heard in the High Court in the next few weeks and has the potential to become a full-blown Judicial Review. Will Cornwall Council go ahead with construction despite this new uncertainty? You bet.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Second home voters may have to "opt in" to be on Cornwall's register

One of the most significant developments in recent years in the debate about Cornwall's second home voters has just been posted on Cornwall Council's website, in the form of a legal opinion from James Findlay QC. His advice has prompted this recommendation from Cornwall's election officials:
"That the Electoral Service adopt a procedure whereby all applicants for electoral registration who reside in a property where Council Tax second home rebate has been claimed are requested to supply further information in accordance with a Type B Review before registration is permitted or refused."
Officials also suggest that applicants who fail to provide the additional information within 28 days be refused electoral registration. Last year's data matching exercise, which compared the electoral register with the separate register of second home owners who claim council tax discount, resulted in a purge of 947 potential voters. The proposed abolition of the council tax discount in Cornwall (as blogged earlier today) raises separate questions about how second home owners might be identified....

Why not just put everything on eBay?

I think there might be a few questions asked about this idea, submitted to a full meeting of Cornwall Council for endorsement on Tuesday:
"increasing the financial limit for capital and revenue payments and receipts for officer decisions to £1,000,000 for capital and £500,000 per annum for revenue.....limiting the discount that can be allowed by the Director for Resources in making a disposal decision to £250,000 in relation to capital and £250,000 per annum in relation to revenue."
This concentrates even more power in the hands of a single unelected official and drives a coach and horses through the "transparency agenda" of which we hear very little these days. And the reason for this:
"The amendments proposed are considered to be necessary so as to ensure efficiency of effective decision making on property transactions without the need to refer every disposal or acquisition decision to Cabinet."
Cornwall has 123 councillors, only 10 of them Cabinet members.

Cornwall's council tax discount for second homes under threat

An interesting proposal from a group of Conservative and Independent councillors will be debated next week:
" would be unjust to allow second home concessions to continue; thus the Council resolves that; a) Group Leaders make representations, in writing, to the minister to remove the present second homes council tax discount and endorse the
use of the additional revenue for new and additional affordable homes..."
Second home owners currently enjoy a 10% discount.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

A healthy debate (part 3)

A highly sensitive document has mysteriously appeared on my desk. It's a draft Business Plan from Cornwall's Primary Care Trust, outlining the ways and means of taking Cornwall's community hospitals outside of the National Health Service - a decision endorsed by the PCT Board yesterday.

This bit was deleted during a private part of yesterday's meeting, once the press and public had been excluded:
"...through our market assessment, we understand that it will not be possible for our new Community Interest Company to continue to offer the full portfolio of services that Cornwall Community Health Services did."
And this bit had already been deleted before yesterday's meeting:
"In order to further the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the Community Interest Company, a number of strategies already exist to reduce patient lengths of stay and acute admissions. As a result of this, it is envisaged that the number of beds required will therefore be reduced.....CHS needs to reduce its bed-stock by a total of 54 beds to increase productivity."(PCT emphasis)

54 beds is about 20% of Cornwall's entire community hospital stock. In other words, one patient in five would have to be "managed" out of the system. The document identifies stroke patients as those particularly suitable for treatment elsewhere (but it doesn't say where).

The PCT assures me that both of these highly controversial paragraphs have now been removed and of course I accept that assurance. I also accept that the document in front of me is an early draft and that the thinking that went into yesterday's decision took some months to evolve.

But I still have some questions. What has happened between December 2010 and today which has miraculously restored "the full portfolio of services?" Was the author of the draft correct in December, and somehow mistaken yesterday? I'd love to know more about the "market assessment" on which that December opinion was reached.

There are other questions about "process" - the way in which some highly political healthcare judgements have been considered in secret. Why was the idea of cutting 54 beds not debated in public? Is the National Health Service not a public institution, with every penny of its budget spent from the public purse?

The PCT tells me that much of the draft Business Plan is commercially confidential. I beg to disagree - it might be confidential to anyone who is looking to make money out of the NHS, but not to NHS patients or to NHS staff. So why not let NHS "suppliers" produce their own confidential documents? To those who suspect that these NHS reforms are all about privatisation, this document looks remarkably like a smoking gun.

The same section of this draft Business Plan goes on to talk about a "beds review" which should have been completed in March or April. I've asked the PCT for a copy. It also reveals a "QIPP Agenda" (Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention) which talks of saving £6m on Cornwall's health services by 2014 - £0.5m cuts in 2011/12; £2.5m in 2012/13 and £3m in 2013/14.

St Ives MP Andrew George, who has expressed concern about the way the NHS is being "reformed" has some questions of his own and in a letter to the PCT asks for confirmation "(a) that these sections were contained in the Business Plan submitted to the Strategic Health Authority at the end of December last year? (b) that these sections were contained in the Business Plan shown to members of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee recently? (c) whether or not a Community Hospitals Bed Review has been undertaken yet whether would you acknowledge that by implication, such a process would be part of the preparatory work required for the setting up of the Community Interest Company?"

The document preparing the way for a "Community Interest Company" begs at least two more questions - which community? And whose interest? I've blogged the background to this before and I dare say there's more to come.

STOP PRESS: BBC Radio Cornwall aims to have more on this on our breakfast programme with James Churchfield tomorrow morning. I've invited the PCT to contribute.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Government digs deep for Cornish language

Local government minister Andrew Stunnell has just told me he's giving the Cornish Language Partnership £360,000 over the next three years, which should secure its future until well into 2015. You can hear the interview on Martin Bailie's programme this afternoon 5pm - 6pm.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

MK Blues

Truro City Councillor Loic Rich, who represented Mebyon Kernow in last year's general election, tells me how pleased he is with his new political home in the Conservative Party. "I do, really, genuinely believe in what the Conservative Party is doing," he says. "I know many people think the Tories are the party for the Home Counties but that's just not true. The Conservatives really care about Cornwall."

Monday, 20 June 2011

An inappropriate detail

What specific advice did Cornwall Council give to leader Alec Robertson about his "internal party group" decision to remove Jan Powell from the Health & Adults Overview & Scrutiny Committee? Here's the answer:
"The Monitoring Officer is frequently asked about the impact of potential or actual personal interests on a Member's participation in meetings - and that is both by the Member impacted and other Members on the same committee who are aware of the interest and are concerned about the affect of this on the effective conduct of the committee's business. It would not be appropriate to discuss detail of privileged legal advice given to the Leader or any other Member."

Friday, 17 June 2011

Jan Powell quits Tories and joins Lib Dems

Cornwall Councillor Jan Powell, elected as a Conservative in 2009 to represent the Liskeard North division, tells me she is defecting to the Liberal Democrats. Hear what she has to say on BBC Radio Cornwall's Martin Bailie programme 5pm - 6pm today. I think this could have some very serious repercussions for the council leader, Alec Robertson. I hear the sound of knives sharpening...

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The ring of confidence

I find that if I stare long enough at the little circular pie-chart which Cornwall Council helpfully provides to illustrate its current political composition, all sorts of weird notions enter my mind. Such as adding up the numbers of all those councillors who could be broadly described as "Opposition" - I make it 44. There are 48 Conservatives and 31 Independents, giving the coalition a theoretical total of 79. Yet we know that some of those Independents do not fully support their own Independent group, never mind the coalition. In any event, only 18 of those Independents would have to swap sides bring about a change of political control. Or to put it another way, 18 Independents would have to support the Conservative-led administration in a vote of confidence.

An interesting conflict

Whether we like it or not, local councillors are elected politicians. We should not be surprised if they want to campaign - indeed, when they come trotting down the garden path in search of our votes, they actively promise to campaign.

This is why I'm currently asking Cornwall Council for precise details of the legal advice given to leader Alec Robertson before he wrote to his Conservative colleague Jan Powell, dismissing her from the Health & Adults Overview & Scrutiny Committee. The council has confirmed that Alec sought, and obtained, legal advice but insists that the decision was for Alec alone, as the leader of the Conservative Party group.

At the heart of this is the impression that Jan's sacking had something to do with the fact that she has a daughter with learning disabilities. Yet it's hard to imagine a councillor who has been more assiduous at declaring this personal interest.

I wonder how many members of Cornwall Council, particularly those with relatives who might need some sort of social care, would even consider registering such an interest. Jan's declarations even go so far as to make it absolutely clear that she has helped raise petitions to oppose the closure of day centres. Hence my point about elected politicians and campaigning. If that's not what they are for, then why are they on the council at all?

There is of course a real conflict of interest in this story. That is the conflict between politicians who were elected to campaign, and full-time professional officials who sometimes find such campaigns quite irritating. The conflict between the council's waste disposal department and its incinerator ambitions, and elected politicians from the St Dennis area, is a case in point. It's the same old same old about who really runs the council.