Sunday, 15 January 2017

IT Project Questions

As it stands I cannot support this project as I do not have the expertise and I have not had sufficient involvement.   

Here are my questions;  in no particular order.

1. Why is the price suddenly £18.15m when the budget signed off in October included £9m for IT?

2. What is the length of the life of the product? I am concerned the proposed pay back period of three years may be insufficient? 

3. What member engagement has there been? The results of the member survey have not even been collated (in which councillors are asked about their IT needs).

4. Are savings to pay for this project being doubled counted? There is, for example, already supposed to be a saving of £500k on staff mileage (to cover the administration's decision not to charge staff for parking)?

5. What evidence do we have of partners' buy in?  Members agreed to the small BT deal in order to work closely with health and then RCHT dropped out.

6. How much is single person discount in total? More information needed on how this software will cut fraud on claims.

7. What is the estimated cost of working hours being lost? £15.70 per hour?  How is this calculated? If it takes officers 20 mins to log on now what will it be after the spend?

8. Is this product as off the shelf as possible to minimise problems with adoption and the difficulties mentioned in the report of recruiting IT people?

9. Will councillors get IT equipment in next Council? I use my own but will all councillors be expected to provide their own?

10. As price is in US dollars, is currency risk being hedged?

11. What fees were paid to Gartner for their advice?

12. Can you provide demonstration on 24th Jan for councillors as use of Skype earlier this week was disastrous in attempting to persuade councillors of benefits of virtual meetings.  

13. Is there a risk that we will raise expectations of public but not able to meet them (instant access to the Council will expect an instant response)? 

14. We seem to be 'paying to play' for the use of this software. Can we afford it?  Are we at the complete mercy of Microsoft? 

15. With the references to the involvement of the project with small businesses in Cornwall, are we mixing up buying IT equipment for the Council and creating jobs in Cornwall? Are there risks with this?

16. The benefits of some of this assumes data sharing being agreed by residents. Many people will have reservations about this.

17. How will the cost be shared across the Council now that 1/3 of staff are in the associated companies/ALMOs and selling their services to third parties in some cases? 


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Mylor Planning

The Parish Council in Mylor was stormy last night. There were roughly 100 people present. I stood in for Cllr Tony Martin to hear residents' views.

A team led by a representative of Savills (Bristol Office) arrived to explain how their client's planning application (PA16/10635) in a six acre field forming part of the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was just what Mylor needed.

There was a shortage of affordable housing within the Parish, which Savills said amounted to 91 units. The Chairman of the Parish Council said it was in fact 69 units. In either case it is a significant number.

The Chairman said that the Parish are working on a plan which includes work on where homes for local need may be sited.

Residents had many concerns about the current application:

1. The noise and disruption of construction traffic.

2. The adverse impact of further traffic through the village - congestion and speed issues (Jennifer Adams, Community Speedwatch Coordinator explained the stats. on this). Bizarrely, Savills claimed that affordable homes generated less traffic movements.

3. The unsuitability of the surrounding roads, particularly with residents having to reverse out onto Saltbox Road: the Savills team offered a new bit of pavement here in mitigation.

4. Mylor School is full to capacity (147 pupils with a capacity of 140). Savills acknowledged there was more to do to resolve this issue.

5. There would be a loss of Grade 2 agricultural land.

6. On flooding, we were advised that this area is 'only' Flood Zone 1 but Savills acknowledge that there is more to do to sort out foul and surface drainage. They plan attenuation ponds on the higher ground to soak up surface water.

The crux of it is that, even if other objections can be overcome, there can be no justification for a loss of ANOB land unless there is a real overriding need to provide affordable homes for people with local connections here. Savills were very very vague on that. Their client (not present as 'had suffered a puncture en route') asks for permission for 'up to 32' homes of which 'up to 50 per cent' would be affordable (70% social rented and 30% shared ownership).

The crucial phrase is 'up to'. So far as I can tell the applicant intends to sell on the land if permission is granted. They have done no work on how many affordable homes are viable. They have no partner in place to deliver the affordable homes. A cynic might say that there has been almost no work done on this at all. It looks like a peg to hang a permission on.

The very fact that Mylor has a need for local needs homes means that vague promises which will scar the AONB and could in the end providing almost no local need homes should be given short shrift.
There seemed every possibility that if permission were granted a future owner would be back looking to increase the density of housing on the site. At the moment about 50% is open space. This application looks like classic foot in the door stuff.

The Parish Council unanimously recommended refusal. I will ask Cllr Martin to support the Parish Council.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Council Numbers: An Alternative Proposal

Proposal
The Council should have between 70 and 90 councillors in 2021. The exact number will depend on getting a good fit with parish boundaries to keep communities together and the ability to deliver effective and convenient local government.
Why?
1.  The Council needs to make or, in some cases scrutinise, significant decisions for Cornwall and must be accountable in that role.
From a practical perspective it is impossible for all 123 councillors to have a meaningful input into those decisions. The result is that many councillors become frustrated and are critical of decisions they do not believe that they can influence. Consequently members do not feel ownership of, or responsibility for, many of the decisions and strategies of the council. This makes for a fragmented and dysfunctional organisation.
It also means that the process of decision making is very slow and unduly burdensome.
This is the Council's third governance review in 7 years. Despite both this administration and the previous one trying to get more members involved in decision making the same frustrations exist.
The conclusion of the Governance Review External Group (GREG) was that the current  number of councillors was 'unworkable' (as reported by the Chief Legal Officer to the Electoral Review Panel on 7th September).
I have listed the references in the GREG (see Appendix A) that support my conclusion that GREG thought that the number of councillors should be radically reduced. GREG did not suggest a new number, as that was not part of their remit. 
A large number of councillors and, importantly, stakeholders gave evidence to the GREG. It is important to take note of what they say to maintain credibility with the partners (such as the health service) with which the Council works.
2. The Council agreed a devolution deal with central government in July 2015. The current administration also wants more devolved powers, as set out in its 'Case for Cornwall'.
The Government generally requires a mayoral model of governance in order to agree devolved powers. A compromise was reached for Cornwall that it would not need to have a mayor but it would be necessary to fundamentally review its governance. It was assumed that councillor numbers would be much reduced. This was to make the responsibility for the administration of the new powers more visible and accountable.
3. The current extremely burdensome structure of committees, often with single issue agendas, called at short notice, held on different days of the week and with overlapping responsibilities makes it difficult for councillors who have work or family commitments. Councillors could operate more efficiently without sacrificing democracy.
The manner in which the Council has dealt with this latest governance/electoral review is a case study which demonstrates the point.  Its initial submission, after a great deal of work by many committees (see Appendix B) and approximately 40 meetings so far, has been politely but heavily criticised by the Commission. It has been told to go back to 'first principles'. 
And councillors have now concluded that they have not done enough work to be able to make a second submission.
4. The target date is 2021. The Council has time in that period to improve its ways of working (see criticisms of outmoded working practices in the GREG report).
5. The public expect us to reduce our numbers. They are suffering reduced services but see only that councillor numbers remain the same and their allowances are going up.
6.  There is significant devolution of assets and services to the parish and town councils, the voluntary sector and other bodies (including the transfer of most schools to academies and the transfer of leisure services to a social enterprise). Reduced service provision should mean that there is less to be done by Cornwall Councillors. 
7. The evidence of the Chief Executive to the Independent Remuneration Panel should be given weight. She said that there had to be 'more discipline in the member cohort'.  This should not be interpreted as anti democratic but that the way in which members operate causes unnecessary operational burdens.
8. There are serious issues around councillors managing large rural divisions which would be exacerbated by reduced numbers. This could be ameliorated by a system of differential allowances for councillors with large divisions (and addressed by the Independent Remuneration Panel). It could also be helped by improved ways of working to help offset additional transport costs. It is impossible, in my view, to protest that we have too much to do already while doing little or nothing to improve our own ways of working.
9. There would be a cost saving at a time of austerity both on member allowances but more significantly also in terms of officer time. This could be better targeted to preserving services.
10. If the divisions were larger they would become unequal in terms of voter numbers less often. And we would therefore minimise the frequency of undertaking the exercise of equalising the divisions. This would be good for stability and save money as the process is incredibly resource intensive.
How would it work?
a) Rather than put forward my own committee structure for 70 to 90 councillors I would use the example structure set out in Appendix 7 of the Agenda for Electoral Review Panel dated 16th November. It could be refined.  
b) More efficient ways of working.
c) Possibly differential allowances for rural members.
d) The Council would need to work with parish and town councillors to increase resource.  The parishes have already decided to grip this difficult issue.  For example the Cornish Association of Local Councils (CALC) intend to look at the merits or otherwise of Community Network Panels to help fill in any gap. There have been two reviews already of the panels and whilst some will say that they work well others say they are of no value.  There is an opportunity here to increase the influence of town and parish councils to be more in line with the responsibilities they are taking on.   It would also help to close the operational and policy gap between Cornwall Council and themselves if the ownership of the panels was devolved to the parishes together with some financial responsibility.  If the numbers of Cornwall councillors is reduced, there will be an incentive to make better use of the panels.

Fiona Ferguson.
18th November 2016


Appendix A
What the experts (Cornwall Council Strategic Governance Review) said:
1. ' The Council had been given 'a once in a decade opportunity to develop and implement a new model of governance' and 'demonstrates ...that Council taken seriously challenge to undertake a fundamental review of its governance upon which the delay in implementing the electoral review in 2021 was based'. (page 5 )
2.'Within the Council, the large proportion of 'backbench' Councillors has led to an unhealthy feeling of marginalisation and disengagement from decisions made by the Executive' (page 6)
3. Councillors' ways of working were 'arguably unsustainable' and 'outmoded'.(page 7)
4. Many councillors felt 'marginalised' and 'disengaged' and this could 'severely impact the effectiveness of the organisation as well as having serious future implications for attracting and retaining councillors' (page 20)
5. On balance mayoral model was rejected (page 22).
6. Portfolio Advisory Committees created a ' significant bureaucratic burden which is a vast draw on both member and officer time whilst achieving only very limited influence' (page 24)
7. A degree of overlap between functions of committees resulting in arguments about areas of responsibility (page 24)
8. 'We support a reform...which would result in fewer committees' (page 26)
9. 'Very limited use is made of technology to reduce Member time spent travelling to meetings' (page 28)
10. Councillors' 'strategic role should have primacy ' (page 29)
11. 'As budgets are reduced and demand for services increase, ..the way Members are currently operating are arguably not sustainable' (Page 29)
12. Impact of double devolution and a more strategic role for Cornwall Council, leads us to consider that it will require substantially fewer Members to function effectively'. ( page 30)
13. The Council should 'support members to move role away from an obligation to identify and personally solve all problems to developing community resilience alongside local town and parish councils' (page 30)

Appendix B


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Advice to the Council on councillor numbers.

Yesterday there was a meeting to discuss a letter from the Local Government Boundary Electoral Commission ticking off the Council for failing to get the axe out to councillor numbers.

The Commission watched the Council's last discussion, via the webcast, on why they needed at least 105 to 115 councillors - and was none too impressed. This time the Council whinged in private!

Most councillors could see no evidence as to why fewer were needed. I acknowledge that councillor workloads are a particularly difficult issue in large rural divisions. It is also true that technology can create a lot of work as well as save it. It is much easier for residents to phone, text, email, tweet or Facebook us than have to write us a letter.

However, these are a few excerpts from the experts' report who had a close look at the Council and challenged us to be radical and reduce our numbers.

What the experts (Cornwall Council Strategic Governance Review) said:
1. ' The Council had been given 'a once in a decade opportunity to develop and implement a new model of governance' and 'demonstrates ...that Council taken seriously challenge to undertake a fundamental review of its governance upon which the delay in implementing the electoral review in 2021 was based'. (page 5 )
2.'Within the Council, the large proportion of 'backbench' Councillors has led to an unhealthy feeling of marginalisation and disengagement from decisions made by the Executive' (page 6)
3. Councillors' ways of working were 'arguably unsustainable' and 'outmoded'.(page 7)
4. Many councillors felt 'marginalised' and 'disengaged' and this could 'severely impact the effectiveness of the organisation as well as having serious future implications for attracting and retaining councillors' (page 20)
5. On balance mayoral model was rejected (page 22).
6. Portfolio Advisory Committees created a ' significant bureaucratic burden which is a vast draw on both member and officer time whilst achieving only very limited influence' (page 24)
7. A degree of overlap between functions of committees resulting in arguments about areas of responsibility (page 24)
8. 'We support a reform...which would result in fewer committees' (page 26)
9. 'Very limited use is made of technology to reduce Member time spent travelling to meetings' (page 28)
10. Councillors' 'strategic role should have primacy ' (page 29)
11. 'As budgets are reduced and demand for services increase, ..the way Members are currently operating are arguably not sustainable'   (Page 29)
12. Impact of double devolution and a more strategic role for Cornwall Council, leads us to consider that it will require substantially fewer Members to function effectively'. ( page 30)
13. The Council should 'support members to move role away from an obligation to identify and personally solve all problems to developing community resilience alongside local town and parish councils' (page 30)







Why should Cornish votes be worth less?

After strong criticism from the Conservative Group and having already burned up about £10,000, the 'no money' Council has agreed not to spend a six figure sum of Cornwall's money on a hopeless legal battle to fight sharing an MP with Devon.

However, it will still press on to attend meetings of the Boundary Commission in Devon and Cornwall next week to complain about this. Unfortunately, this is also a waste of Cornwall's money as the Boundary Commission has already explained to the Council.  The Boundary Commission has no power to address this issue.

To continue to protest about this, the Council needs to decide whether it is better to have only 5 rather than 6 MPs representing our interests at Westminster. This would make a Cornish vote worth about 17% less than votes in English counties, never mind other parts of the UK.

This is the plan the Council has currently been working on. Has it got a mandate to do this? It could also have some pretty strange effects on constituency borders within Cornwall.

Or, does it tell the Government that it cannot reduce the cost of politics by cutting MPs from 650 to 600, so that Cornwall can keep 6 MPs? Has it a mandate for what would only be a short term fix for Cornwall?

Would it be better to use the political influence of Cornish MPs to campaign for more money (or powers) for Cornwall rather than pleading a special case that Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (total voters about 394,000) should have 6 MPs when we are only 1600 voters over the limit for 5?

So far, perhaps recognising the difficulty, the Council has not discussed it with the people of Cornwall. Consequently the Council has no mandate but is just having a general shout – at the wrong people; because The Boundary Commission has no power to address this issue.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Devonwall

Don’t spend thousands fighting a legal battle that can’t be won
Conservatives urge Council not to continue with Devonwall legal challenge

The Conservative Group at Cornwall Council has always been opposed to the idea of the cross county Parliamentary boundary concept known as ‘Devonwall' and they remain firmly apposed to it.

However, legal advice that Cornwall Council has received from a QC is that a legal challenge is extremely unlikely to succeed as it has been an Act of Parliament since 2011. This decision was made five years ago by a coalition led Government, which at the time saw Cornwall represented in Parliament evenly by three Conservative MP’s and three Lib Dem’s.

In this instance the Conservative Group feels strongly that residents would prefer that public money were spent funding more essential services in Cornwall such as Adult Social Care, Road Maintenance and even Public Conveniences and not funding an expensive legal battle that ultimately only lawyers themselves will win.

Commenting on the issue the Conservative Group Leader, Cllr John Keeling, said: “This isn’t about whether we’re happy with the idea of Devonwall, it’s about whether we’re happy to continue spending public money on a legal battle that we as a council cannot win. We’ve already spent a significant amount of money getting Counsel Opinion so why would you go against that recommendation and start spending thousands more.”

A request by the Conservative Group for the meeting to be cancelled was overlooked by the administration. The result is that Tuesday’s extraordinary meeting scheduled for 10.30am in Truro will go ahead creating additional travel expense for all attending councillors as well as significant expenditure on more officer time.