Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Devolution doesn't guarantee better

Next week the LibDem/Indie Cabinet at Cornwall Council will put their agreed 'Strategy' for 2014-2018 to Full Council for approval.

Part of the Strategy is that the Council ask the Government for more powers for Cornwall to manage ourselves.  This is clearly very attractive but it is important for the Council to consider how far it is taking the devolution agenda.

It is absolutely key to make Cornwall as attractive as possible for inward investment and to encourage the creation of more well paid jobs here.

There is a risk that some aspects of the devolution agenda may put off new businesses establishing here. The Scotland experience suggests that it would be wise to be cautious. Additional tax raising powers may give cause for concern.

To take just one example, the Cabinet recently wrote to the Government to campaign for no cap at all on the rate of council tax that may be levied here. The administration do want not to have to put excess rises in council tax to a referendum vote, as they are currently obliged to do by national legislation.
This would certainly take the pressure off the Council to be efficient and well run. From 2002 until 2009, when the unitary authority commenced with a Conservative/ Independent coalition, the average rise in council tax was generally between 5 and 8% each year.

As the current administration are campaigning against local referendums, their brand of devolution seems to be about devolution to the Council, not devolution to Cornwall.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The truth about the budget proposals on parking

Cabinet member, Alex Folkes wants me to clarify the Cabinet's position on parking charges (see my blog of 3 September) I am happy to do so, although I am surprised he would not rather do this himself.

The Budget book (page 83) says that the Cabinet proposes to increase income by charging £500,000 per annum for staff to park at certain buildings. Page 83 does not say when this will come in but Alex says it will not be for 3 years. This is because, while cutting services, the current administration decided to guarantee to pay all pay rises for staff who are not made redundant (and to guarantee their terms and conditions) for the next three years. In exchange staff gave up their right to be considered for a bonus in that period.

Also, Alex believes that it will or should be possible to raise a further £2.9m from car parking without increasing charges by RPI plus 1% per year (page 49 of Budget Book). He does not say how he will do this. Trials over the last year to reduce parking charges without losing money (never mind making more money) have so far resulted in an estimated overall loss to the Council of about £20,000 (plus set up and administration costs of of £86,000). So the Cabinet has set itself a difficult task.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Results of Residents' Parking Survey in Hendra and Kenwyn

In July I spent about 4 days or so carrying out a door to door survey of views on whether there was support for a residents' parking scheme (similar to those recently introduced in Redannick) in Hendra and/or Kenwyn.

Some residents expressed concern that this was a stealth tax by the Council.  In fact, due to the cost of planning, consulting, implementing, administering and enforcing, the Council would rather 'keep its head down' and do nothing at all. However, due to pressure from residents including those voiced at a recent public meeting held at County Hall in February, it was agreed that I would consult residents for their views. But, even if in favour, the Council did not promise to take any action.  I paid for the production costs of the leaflet. I mention this to reinforce the point that the Council are not pushing this scheme.

I delivered just over 800 surveys. Nearly a quarter of residents replied.  Views were very mixed. To protect everybody's privacy I obviously cannot publish the results road by road. However, my conclusion is that there is support for a scheme in Carylon Road and probably in the area around Trehaverne Terrace. There is also quite a lot of support in Stokes Road.  There is some support in other roads but most residents in other roads were against or did not respond.

This is an important issue which is blighting many people's lives. I am afraid that a number of announcements made by the Council this week are likely to make the commuter parking issue worse. These are the proposals announced on Monday:

1. to raise council parking charges by the rate of inflation plus 1% in each of the next 4 years;
2. to introduce charges for on street parking (to raise a further £1m per year); and
3. to introduce charges for Council staff parking in certain locations (which have not yet been announced).

My next step is to discuss the results with officers and see whether a scheme could be introduced in the limited area where it is likely to be supported. This would only happen after a formal consultation.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Chacewater have a right to be heard

Chacewater Parish Council are not alone in feeling that the administration of Cornwall Council has not made the good working connections with local councils as it would like to claim.
The manner of the complaint by councillors at Chacewater may have annoyed the leader but that does not detract from the genuine sense of disconnection with an authority seen increasingly as remote and manipulative.
Denying that problems exist will only deepen the divide between the current administration at County Hall and the towns and parishes. Cllr Pollard would also be better served by having a letter writer who avoids spin.  Cllr Pollard should be above that.
For instance, the staff reduction from 22,000 to 12,000 is totally irrelevant because it largely relates to schools staff, who are no longer employed by the Council because their schools have become academies. Talking about remaining staff being 6,100 excluding schools is not accurate either as a large contingent of Council staff now work for subsidiaries such as Cormac and Cornwall Housing.
Members of Cornwall Council from all sides admit that there are too many  "closed session" meetings and too many meetings where there is little or no substance to the agenda.
Planning is an important function of the Council and here again it is clear that Chacewater represents the views of many across Cornwall that the Council does not listen sufficiently to the views of local people.
With the budget challenges that Cornwall Council faces, one of the current administration's current objectives has to be working in a spirit of trust and cooperation with the many parish and town councillors across Cornwall who give their service to their communities as volunteers.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Wading through Treacle

As a lawyer, I am used to sitting in meetings. But in the private sector it does not make sense to sit about in meetings while everybody's costs run up.

There are simple rules. Only turn up for the part of the meeting that you are needed. Have joint meetings rather than go over the same ground over and over again. Use video conferencing. Have well thought out agendas...

I had one (building society) client that went through a period of having internal meetings with everybody standing up, to ensure that meetings were short and to the point . A bit extreme but Cornwall Council are way down the other end of the spectrum.

For example, the Chief Executive (on £165,000 per annum) was tasked by the administration to tour Cornwall to meet members locally to discuss the Council's Strategy. Then we all came in to hear what everybody else thought. Then we had ten meetings for different groups of councillors to ask for the information they would need to consider the Council's draft budget. Then we had nine meetings (fronted by the Chief Executive) so that different groups of councillors could hear the emerging strategy and give comments. Then there were nine focus groups to consider whether we needed to change the way in which the Council was governed. There will be ten meetings in September to consider the actual draft budget....

Recently, the administration at County Hall has been very miffed to be publicly criticised by Chacewater Parish Council. My own experience of town and parish councils is that their meetings tend to be workmanlike. Maybe the current administration could learn something from them?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Pink Soup: the Council struggle to keep the lid on bad news

I have lost count of how many meetings I have attended in which I have been told that £196m has to be saved and services will need to be cut drastically, perhaps up to 50 per cent if adult social care is to be protected. And the Council have money for nothing (well apart from new offices).

So, I was surprised that they thought it was appropriate to keep secret a paper written by officers as to what the library service might look like after the cuts. I would suggest that this would have been of considerable public interest particularly in the light of the (now concluded) discussions on the future of the mobile library service.

In the same meeting they discussed the Cormac Business Plan, which they had said would be confidential but did not actually appear on pink papers to indicate that was so.

They also tabled the draft Leisure Survey, which was not mentioned as confidential at all. I am not now clear what I can say about this but it certainly was not talking about opening any leisure facilities. Is it less 'sensitive' because children do not have votes?

Musical Offices: when the music stops ....

The Council recently announced that they have been able to guarantee the future of the old North Cornwall offices at Wadebridge. These are to meet the 'strong service need' of Cormac for a 'professional headquarters'.

The other services vacating the Wadebridge offices are going to help fill up the new £15m office building in Bodmin. The LibDem/Indie administration supported the spend on that office on the basis that it would bring jobs to North Cornwall.  If now appears that these jobs may simply be transferred from elsewhere in Cornwall including from Truro.

The Council feel able to guarantee the future of offices but I wonder if anyone has heard them guarantee the future of (any) public services.

The copy above was submitted on Monday to this Week's West Briton. As of yesterday there is an exception to this. The Council has now guaranteed the future of one out of four of the mobile library vans. It will mean the preservation of 172 out of 665 of the stops but on a less frequent basis. The guarantee is subject to the important caveat that any remaining stop which does not have at least 3 regular customers can be cut at a later stage.

When I took issue with the Council's proposal to budget £25,000 a year for (an old) mobile library van, they promised it would be a new one. They have not taken forward my suggestion of using volunteer drivers, which was made to save money to help preserve the budget for the rest of the library service, which is under threat.

I have managed to secure a guarantee of holiday/sick cover for the remaining van so that residents are not left at the side of the road waiting for a van that may never turn up.