Thursday, 28 April 2011

Fiona Ferguson in the cabinet?

If this report in today's Falmouth Packet is accurate - and it does seem to have the authority of someone who was actually "in the room" - then there can be only one outcome. A cabinet job for Fiona.

Peace in our time

Congratulations to Wadebridge councillor Scott Mann, a rising star among Cornwall's Conservatives, who was last night elected as deputy leader of the council Tory group. I do hope this victory encourages him to revive his blog, which had been doing very well until falling into neglect in February last year. Scott also has a Twitter account, and can now look forward to at least one new follower (me). He beat St Austell's Steve Double, who stays as group secretary. Alec Robertson was re-elected as leader, although whether his position has been strengthened or weakened by the recent ructions remains to be seen. The issue of Cabinet Support Members will now become a proxy for internal Conservative group debate - and even more crucially, the relationship between the Conservative group and the Independents.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Lunchtime with Laurence - YES or NO?

It's unusual for one of BBC Radio Cornwall's programmes to have attracted to much attention from the blogosphere, particularly before it's even been broadcast. So my thanks to Cornwall Councillors Jude Robinson, Alex Folkes, Andrew Wallis and Steve Double for their blogs and Tweets about tomorrow's Lunchtime with Laurence programme, which is mainly about next week's referendum on changing the voting system.

Andrew even Tweeted "live" coverage of the programme (surely a first?), which was recorded at County Hall last night before a specially-invited audience supplied by the "Yes" and "No" campaigns. On the panel were Nathan Hollow and UKIP MEP Lord Dartmouth for the "Yes" supporters and Camborne & Redruth's Conservative MP, George Eustice, and former Falmouth & Camborne Labour MP Candy Atherton for the "No" team.

It was lively. I think most people enjoyed themselves (and surely this is also an important part of politics today.) Whether anyone learned anything new is beyond my pay grade to speculate on. You can hear what everyone had to say at 12 noon tomorrow, and watch a report on it on The Politics Show on Sunday.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Are we nearly there yet?

The soap opera which is the will-they-won't-they-push-the-button in the Conservative group at County Hall may be drawing to a close. Councillor Andrew Wallis blogs it first.

Even more from our showbiz correspondent

Yet another posh dinner in London beckons for the County Hall luminaries - this time at the London Hilton Hotel, Park Lane, and the Municipal Journal achievement awards on 23rd June. Cornwall is one of six finalists in the "Best Achieving Council of the Year" category.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Cabinet creaking under the strain?

Was it really such a good idea for Cornwall Council's 10-member Cabinet, so over-worked and hard-pressed that it needs to appoint additional-payroll Cabinet Support Members, to have cancelled its next meeting? Not enough to talk about? On the back benches the prospect of taxpayers having to fund more interesting jobs for Conservative/Independent councillors is viewed with some disdain. Incidentally, the Localism Bill, currently trundling through Parliament, will allow local authorities to scrap Cabinets and return to the old "committee structure" of decision-making. Which would at least give Cornwall's 123 councillors something to talk about.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Cabinet Support Members heading for the long grass?

Cornwall Council's Cabinet this morning fudged the issue of abolishing advisory panels and potentially bringing more backbenchers into government. Councillor Graeme Hicks proposed lifting the axe that had been hanging over the car parking panel, among others, announcing a stay-of-execution for six months to allow time for a "review." Cabinet voted for the new recommendation unanimously.

Council leader Alec Robertson has promised to press ahead with job descriptions, and pay details, for any Cabinet Support Members that might be created - and also suggested their remuneration could be "cost neutral" (implying they'll be funded by savings made eventually on panel abolition.)

The sound of gears crashing into reverse at today's meeting suggested to me that the Independent part of the Conservative-Indie coalition has yet to be convinced.

I wonder if "review" is a euphemism for "won't happen." Six months is a long time for dissident Conservative backbenchers to wait for the sort of "inclusivity" that might find them something to occupy their time. It also takes us to October, a mere 19 months before the next round of Cornwall Council elections, and a period when members start reverting into candidates.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Why the current rules encourage absentee voting

Imagine you own a big house somewhere in a high council tax area and a holiday cottage in Cornwall. You have to tell one set of election officials which is your "primary" residence and another set of officials which is the property on which you wish to claim a discount on your council tax.

In general elections, you will be voting from your "primary" residence, which you may well have decided is the one with the cheaper council tax, so as to claim a percentage discount on the larger tax bill.

The officials simply don't have the resources to prove your claim one way or the other and so have to take your word for it. I wonder if any readers would see this as an argument for trying to improve democracy through levying higher, punitive council tax rates on second homes?

Monday, 18 April 2011

Facebook says its "Hate Cornwall" page is OK

Finally got a response from Facebook, who tell me that since the "I Hate Cornwall" page directs its venom at a place, rather than a race or religion, there's no problem. "We have reviewed the page and it doesn't breach our Principles or Statement of Rights and Responsibilities," a spokesman tells me. "We also have pages which say 'I Hate Manchester' and 'I Hate Liverpool' and so on."

I'm not sure this is really something to boast about. Particularly when paragraph 3, clause 6 of your Statement of Rights and Responsibilities says:
"You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user."
Or the next line:
"You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."
But what do I know? I'm far too old to be on Facebook anyway.

Who can and can't vote in Cornwall

Among a million other things, I'm working on a story about voter registration in Cornwall which I hope will bear fruit later this week. One thing I've learned is that about 4 per cent of those who should be entitled to vote in Cornwall are missing from the register. That's about 22,000 people. I have previously explained how second home owners have the potential to exercise undue influence, particularly in low-turnout local council elections - but the missing voters have the potential to change the result in every single Cornish Parliamentary constituency. I'm not suggesting that following the purge of nearly 1,000 second home owners from the register, there is no longer an issue. But perhaps it's time for someone to start campaigning for the rights of the missing voters, too.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Are we still all in this together?

25th October 2010, Appendix 7, Cornwall Council's Emergency Budget:
Top messages from notes from public and stakeholder meetings

1. Save on staff and Members pay and benefits (my emphasis)

This is what the council reported as the number one priority. The savings on staff pay and benefits have been well documented. But what has the council done to reduce spending on members? Allowances "frozen" - but not cut. Number of members: 123. And if I remember correctly, about 20% of them didn't even turn up for the budget meeting.

Incidentally, this email from councillor Ann Kerridge arrived today:
The rumour mill at Cornwall Council has been in overdrive recently about a plot to replace Tory council leader Alec Robertson with Fiona Ferguson. Apparently a number of Conservative backbenchers have become concerned about Alec's autocratic style of management. Thus there will be few who think a cabinet paper proposing the creation of posts to assist cabinet members is unconnected with this revolt. Especially as the new jobs are 99.9% certain to attract remuneration.

At the beginning of the council in 2011 I proposed that total payments to councillors be frozen until 2015 in the light of cuts and redundancies that would hit council services. The basic councillors' allowance has been frozen whilst total expenditure on councillors has increased because jobs have been created to placate Mebyon Kernow amongst others.

I predict that this ploy to save Alec Robertson's skin will get voted through by Conservatives and Independent councillors. I predict that Fiona Ferguson won't replace Alec but that she will get a position with a responsibility allowance and that total spending on councillors will go up again.

It may be necessary to buy off dissident councillors. If that has to happen then it should be paid for by a reduction in the generous payments to Alec and the rest of his cabinet. After all it is them and not council tax payers who have caused the problem.

Government schools cuts wasted £500,000 in Cornwall

Under the Freedom of Information Act, please provide me with the following information:
The total unrecoverable costs of any cancelled Building Schools for the Future projects in your area, including the costs of designers, architects, builders and consultants.
The total unrecoverable cost for our Building Schools for the Future project is £515,762

Questions for Facebook

My thanks to The Cornish Republican for drawing my attention to the "I Hate Cornwall" campaign on Facebook. He makes a good point about why Facebook's moderators allow such comments. Facebook has a "Report This Group" feature which invites complaints about comments which discriminate on grounds of race or ethnicity, or which make a credible threat of violence. Too narrow? If the "I Hate Cornwall" group is meant to be a joke, then imho it's not very funny. I will ask Facebook for an explanation.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Open, transparent etc etc etc

Next week's meeting of Cornwall Council's Cabinet is being asked "to consider as a matter of urgency" the appointment of Cabinet Support Members "to assist Cabinet Members to progress key priority issues."

I wonder what could be so urgent about this initiative, which allows council leader Alec Robertson effectively to bring more backbenchers into government. Surely it can't have anything to do with all those rumours of an imminent Cabinet re-shuffle?


Next week's Cornwall Council Human Resources Committee receives a report which tells us:
"The Council lost 142,930 working days to sickness absence in 2010/2011 which equates to 9.23 days lost per employee using the BV 12 methodology. This compares to 9.49 days lost per employee last year and is equivalent to a reduction in sickness absence of over 7000 days."
The same meeting is also due to receive a presentation on "staff morale and engagement." Might these issues be related?

Sale of the century (until the next one)

Here's a list of the South West Regional Development Agency assets which are now to be sold on the open market. Sharp-eyed readers will note that they were all either purchased or built with taxpayers' money:

Premises in St Austell

Priory Road site, St Austell

Land at Kernick Industrial estate Penryn

Bridon Ropes building, Falmouth

Pengelly site, Delabole

Land at Saltash Parkway, Saltash

Land at Whitegates, St Dennis, St Dennis Land at Incubation/Medical Park, Treliske, Truro

Bickland Industrial Estate, Falmouth

Guildford Road Industrial Estate, Hayle

Brunel Business Park, St Austell

Trevol Business Park, Torpoint

Callywith Gate, Bodmin

Cooksland Industrial Estate, Bodmin

Long Rock Industrial Estate, Penzance

St Columb Major Business Park, St Columb Major

Threemilestone Industrial Estate, Truro

Castle House, Truro

Treleigh Industrial Estate, Redruth (factories)

Tolvaddon Business Park, Camborne (Ind Estate)

Land at Trevol, Torpoint

Taxing the imagination

The Taxpayers' Alliance draws my attention to its latest wheeze - a survey of local council mileage rates, claiming Cornwall Council pays up to 65p/mile. The actual rate is currently 40p/mile for the first 3,000 miles and 20p/mile thereafter. I remember being at the council meeting, more than a year ago, which agreed the rate.

The Taxpayers' Alliance figures are based on a Freedom of Information request which solicited an historic casual rate, and one detail provided the headline. Nowhere in the TPA report does it mention that after 8,500 miles that historic rate dropped to just 16p/mile. But why spoil a good story? The TPA tells me that it only asked for historic information up to the last full financial year because not all councils would have been able to provide up-to-date information. So why not ask Cornwall Council if it had up-to-date information? "That would have been unfair to the other councils." Why not mention that even the historic 65p/mile dropped to 16p/mile? "That would have been overly complicated." And you think your report is fair? "Yes."

A handy hint for fellow newshounds: The Other Taxpayers' Alliance has a quote generator which attempts to demonstrate that some pressure groups are beyond parody.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Nervous wait for Cornish Language Partnership

Still no news from the Department for Communities and Local Government, whose £150,000/year contributions to the Cornish Language Partnership ran out on 31st March. The Partnership tells me it can probably survive in its present form until June, but unless ministers stump up within the next few weeks, staff will have to be told their contracts are unlikely to be renewed. You can hear more about this on BBC Radio Cornwall's breakfast programme with James Churchfield tomorrow morning.

Monday, 11 April 2011

More from our showbiz correspondent

Congratulations to the County Hall press office for being shortlisted in the "crisis communications" category at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Excellence Awards, for its handling of last year's floods. A posh dinner at the the Park Plaza Hotel, Westminster, beckons on 1st June. £195 + VAT per person.

As I have blogged previously, the media industry has more than its share of awards dinners and I for one would not criticise the council if it sent an appropriate number of deserving representatives. Here's the shortlist:

Cornwall Council

Flooding in Cornwall

IPB Communications
Irlam Gas Explosion

Managing the Volcanic Ash Crisis

Thames Water Press Office
Winter 2010/2011

Yorkshire Water
The Big Freeze

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Nothing personal

We can only feel sorry for Cornwall Council's local transport manager, Peter Moore, whose email to Elliot Ridington (Democratic Services Officer), has somehow found its way into my in-box. The subject is the abolition of the Car Parking Advisory Panel and it was copied to Kate Dixon, parking policy group manager. Can anyone suggest who is "the guy from Looe?"
Eliot (sic),

Cllr Hicks has asked me to cancel the Panel meeting on Wednesday and to
terminate the Panel.

Can this be done pl.

Kate, we need to tell the guy from Looe.

Peter Moore
Local Transport Manager

When interests conflict

The game of "follow the money" which I attempted with the charity Cosgarne Hall, which provides accommodation for vulnerable adults in the St Austell area, prompted me to seek clarification from the Charity Commissioners about the role of its former chief executive and landlord John Coventry, who resigned as chief executive in February. This is the commissioners' reply:
"Whilst Mr Coventry was the CEO and also renting property to the charity there was a conflict of interest. We are satisfied however that this was properly managed. The resignation of Mr Coventry does remove the conflict of interest but this conflict would only have been of concern if it had not been properly managed. It is inevitable that conflicts of interest occur in charities. The issue is that charity trustees identify and actively manage these. "

Stephen Gilbert talks to Lib Dem Voice about "career suicide"

I belong to a generation that struggles with 21st century text-speak acronyms, so I'm keen to learn how today's politicians try to get their message across. Newquay & St Austell MP Stephen Gilbert recently used three letters in place of three words while addressing a group of school pupils, sparking a Twitterstorm.Lib Dem Voice quotes headteacher David Parker thus:
"Perhaps if he had thought about it before he said it he wouldn't have used that phrase but maybe it was a slip of the tongue. If he had asked me before whether that was an appropriate term to use I would have said probably not."
Stephen Gilbert is almost certainly correct to dismiss his comment as a "storm in a teacup" but I'd welcome comments drawing my attention to similar acronyms used by other Cornish politicians.

The best laid plans

Some relieved planners at County Hall. Looks like Cornwall might have dodged a bullet, at least for the time being.

Nearly 1,000 second home voters purged

My thanks to Cornwall's election officials for confirming that so far this year, 947 people who were eligible to vote in last year's general election have been purged from the register.

They were deleted as part of the campaign to cross-reference the electoral register with the separate register of people who claim a council tax discount.

Cornwall Council won't give me further details, but if we average that countywide figure of 947 across the six Parliamentary constituencies, we get the potential for 158 illegally-cast votes in each. Making marginal seats now seem even more marginal.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

To live in interesting times

Margaret Thatcher, on reshuffling the Cabinet:
"I'm not a good butcher but I've had to learn to carve the joint. People expect a new look."
Rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle at County Hall have been fuelled by the scheduling of an "extraordinary Cabinet meeting" on 18th May, the day after the Council's annual meeting. The Council's Conservative group meets this afternoon. My guess is that any talk of a challenge to the leadership of Alec Robertson will have evaporated by tea-time.

In the Mother of Parliaments

An Early Day Motion in the name of St Ives MP Andrew George:

BBC Radio Cornwall
That this House congratulates BBC Radio Cornwall for its work providing news and entertainment to over 140,000 loyal listeners across the Duchy (32% of the local population); notes that the quality of its programming gives it one of the highest average hours per listener ratings in the whole country (15.44 hours per week); commends the valuable role it plays in maintaining Cornwall's characteristic community spirit in spite of the unique geographical challenges of living and working in a rural coastal area; acknowledges the help and information it provides to the millions of tourists that visit Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly each year; agrees that a functioning democracy needs an effective and objective media, particularly at a local level; notes that it gives excellent value for money and is the brand leader in terms of cost per listening hour; is deeply concerned by proposals to end daytime programming; and calls on the BBC to make a commitment fund Radio Cornwall so that the current level and quality of output can continue.

Monday, 4 April 2011

MI5 files, the Nazi's "Fourth Reich" and nationalists in Cornwall

I know the messenger will be blamed for the message, but the story is too good to ignore. So hearty congratulations to today's Daily Telegraph for telling us how French collaborator Olivier Mordrelle spilled the beans about Nazi plans for a Fourth Reich following his capture and interrogation towards the end of the Second World War.

The Telegraph quotes from MI5 files now released at the National Archives:
"Source states that this last meeting had a strange air of unreality. He had the feeling that last minute plans were being made in words and on paper when all the persons present were secretly preoccupied with the idea of how they could best save their skins."

The Telegraph continues:
"Mordrelle had performed a number of roles for the occupiers, culminating in being appointed French representative for post-war activities by the Nazi party's intelligence agency, the Sicherheitsdienst. He was also said to have had contact with nationalist movements in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall."

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Has Green Cornwall gone a bit brown round the edges?

Just over a year ago, to a fanfare of triumphant trumpets, Cornwall Council launched Green Cornwall: council vehicles were to be all-electric, there were to be battery-charging points up and down the A30, Cornwall was to benefit from a £1 billion solar energy gold rush, and there were to be many more windfarms, including some built on council land.

The reality: the last Labour government never came through with the money for the battery-charging points, the current Coalition government is downsizing its support for the solar industry to the point where many of the approved schemes will probably never be built, and the number of windfarm planning applications approved in Cornwall over the past 12 months is precisely zero.

I'm grateful to Tom Flanagan, corporate director for environmental and planning issues, and to councillor Julian German, Cabinet member responsible for these things, for taking the time to explain to me how they see Green Cornwall in 2011. It is, they say, still with us and they are trying to find ways to progress it.

You can hear more about Green Cornwall, and the view from County Hall, on BBC Radio Cornwall's breakfast programme tomorrow morning.

It's serious when they laugh

I have no idea how many spoof videos there are on YouTube which make use of the 2004 movie "Downfall," based on Hitler's last days in his bunker. I think it was Machiavelli who said "it is better to be feared than loved," but he should possibly have added the rider that to be ridiculed was really painful. Now a YouTube subscriber called cornishminer1 has posted this, although we'll have to wait until Wednesday's meeting of Cornwall Council's Conservative group before we know who will have the last laugh.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Incinerator decision now due by 2nd June

Greg Clark, minister for decentralisation at the Department for Communities and Local Government, now says the decision about whether or not to approve plans for Cornwall's incinerator at St Dennis, should be taken by 2nd June.

Time for a "Downfall" update

With the entire BBC on high alert for April Fool's Day spoofs, I return to work this morning to find that the long-debated Penzance ferry terminal project appears to have finally run out of steam. No joke - it seems to be true. Anger and despair at County Hall and blame flying in all directions. I have no idea who was responsible for the Downfall mashup, posted on YouTube last year, but clearly the time has come for a re-make. Subject to the usual BBC requirements about taste and decency, I'm happy to host efforts here.

Time for a "Downfall" update

With the entire BBC on high alert for April Fool's Day spoofs, I return to work this morning to find that the long-debated Penzance ferry terminal project appears to have finally run out of steam. No joke - it seems to be true. Anger and despair at County Hall and blame flying in all directions. I have no idea who was responsible for the Downfall mashup, posted on YouTube last year, but clearly the time has come for a re-make. Subject to the usual BBC requirements about taste and decency, I'm happy to host efforts here.