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.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Open Space Strategy for Truro and other large towns

As the local member for Truro Trehaverne  I make no apology for considering the draft "Open Space" strategy  from a Truro point of view.   This strategy document is due for sign off by Cabinet tomorrow (today 30th July).

The bottom line is that I am very unhappy with it.

It seeks to count in Truro's open space land which is not in practice freely available as public open space, such as land owned by Truro School.  However, approving a strategy that relies on public access to private land is not practical and consequently not fit for purpose.

The Strategy also takes account of the playing fields at Richard  Lander School. We need to know that this will work in practice. My experience is that public use is almost non existent, apparently due to the fact that the school was funded by PFI.

When Penair became an academy the community lost the use of the Community Room next to the AstroTurf, which has become offices for PE staff. This argument is still going on.

Further, any strategy for getting contributions from developers for open space must take land except on small sites or in extremis a cash sum which will buy the necessary open space nearby. Cash contributions (calculated I think by reference to the average cost of land in Cornwall) as planning officers are recommending on a 70 -acre site for Asda and houses at Willow Green on the west side of Truro, is simply not acceptable.

I also note that the council thinks that Cornwall is cheap when compared to other authorities for the provision of open space facilities.  Really?

Developers put in planning application for open space in Carrine Road

This piece of land was allocated for open space and should remain as such. But a developer wants to put a house on it.
Last July Cornwall Council gave pre-application planning advice that they did NOT consider that the land was suitable for development and that it should remain as open space.

I am afraid that the developer has not given up. Recently some lovely trees were chopped down. I guess that this was done to try to indicate that it would be easy just to slot in another house here.

I have arranged for a tree preservation order to be placed on all the remaining trees. We should do all we can to hold onto this important patch of green.


An application for a house on this space has now come in. If you want to object you may do so by the on line Planning Register (reference PA14/06544)  on or Attention Laura Potts, Planning Officer c/o County Hall, Treyew Road, Truro TR1 3AY

Monday, 28 July 2014

Support for Chacewater Parish Council

Dear Councillors,

Your letter to parish and town councils and the response from the leader of Cornwall council raise some profound issues which I think will resonate with many people.

1. You are, of course, perfectly at liberty to take soundings from your fellow Parish Councils on your views and this is a sensible approach.  I see no reason for a divide and rule strategy so that you are only at liberty to speak to Cornwall Council directly or through your own Cornwall Councillor.

2. I think that Cornwall Council would be trusted more if it was more careful with the numbers it uses.  Trust between us all is very important, particularly to Cornwall Council, which is heavily reliant on your role as the real volunteers.   I am sure Cllr Pollard knows this, as he has been a town councillor for many years.

3.  A little bit of clarity

- the 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. No efficiencies by the Council there.

  - 6,100 is also pretty irrelevant because many staff have been transferred to separate companies which are largely still owned or paid for by the Council.  For example, Cornwall Housing and Cormac are separate companies but they are still part of the Council.

 - I would say that, as of last year, the head count had reduced by about 1000 (as against a total number of employees excluding schools staff of about 10,000).  The Council should publish the real numbers.

 - If you compare the net cumulative budget of the seven predecessor councils in their final year with the budget for this year of Cornwall Council it has reduced from £549.945m to £505.005m.  So about 8 per cent in cash terms.  Of course, in the meantime there has been inflation and other pressures.  But not many people in Cornwall have been able to increase their expenditure by the rate of inflation through the recession.

 - It is surely right for the Council to tighten its belt when council tax is one of the largest bills for working families.

 - Cornwall Council often complains that it is unfairly funded by central Government. I think there are issues here that deserve closer examination but the Council uses figures for rural councils as a group compared to urban councils.  If you look at Cornwall's own funding we are almost in the middle when compared with all other unitary councils, urban or rural.

- I think Cornwall Council have reduced their spend on interim staff but some of that is undoubtedly due to the completion of large projects.  It is difficult to unpick this as some of these staff will have become permanent staff and others have just reached the end of the project they were working on (like the BT deal or the new accounts system).  On the other hand the spend on adult social care has ballooned by £7m due to poor management.

  - Bear in mind that Cornwall Council are building themselves new offices for £15m (allegedly to save money but with no published business plan) and preserving others so that Cormac can have a “professional HQ” .

- on planning, I have stood up for the west side of Truro.  I remain extremely concerned about the western approach to Truro and traffic in Highertown.  I do believe that members took their eye off the ball because of the promise of a stadium, which has not materialised and the former CEO was in the thick of that, as he made clear at the time.

- it is also clearly wrong to try and suggest that a planning application for 1500 dwellings and a supermarket should be counted as one application on a par with one application for a small extension to a domestic dwelling.  That is a gross distortion of statistics and does not represent a true and accurate picture.

 I hope that my own views do in some manner reflect and support your own.  You are saying no more than I have heard elsewhere throughout Cornwall  and you reflect a deep concern that the gap between Cornwall Council and town and parish councils is, in general, getting wider not narrower.
Fiona Ferguson
Cornwall Councillor Truro Trehaverne