Thursday, 28 November 2013

Talking to the trees.

On Wednesday I held a public meeting at All Saints Highertown to discuss the Council's plans for 'highway improvements' related to the Taylor Wimpey development at Old Richard Lander School and the impact on the trees on A390 along the verge opposite Penwerris Road.

The meeting was somewhat derailed by someone campaigning in a by election for the City Council who claimed wrongly that they had saved the trees.  Nevertheless, more than 50 people turned up. Officers from Highways explained that they were working on a plan to try to replace the extension of the bus lane with a bus gate at the end of Treliske Lane which would allow buses to jump the queue.

They have been working with Taylor Wimpey on a redesign since August when residents first discovered men in yellow jackets eyeing up the trees.  The plan is still not done and they do not expect to go out to public consultation for, maybe , five or six months. It is not yet clear whether the plan is feasible and whether all the trees can be saved but they are doing their best to minimise any destruction.

They had a bit of a roasting by the public last night- as did those playing politics with trees.  Many people took the opportunity to air their frustrations with the new look Chiverton, Trafalgar Roundabout, 'priority junction' at the end of Newbridge Lane et al.

In all the melee I forgot to say that Woodleigh Grange is to be rebranded after Christmas.  The hot favourite is Penn an Dre (meaning Head of the Town) or possibly Parc Penwethers.

Cabinet yesterday, highlights or lowlights.

At Cabinet yesterday there was the most surreal discussion ever.  Cllr Folkes and his Lib Dem colleagues attempted to persuade the rest of the Cabinet to back a plan to build a big office in Bodmin in part speculatively for BT. The Lib Dems could not even agree what they would do with it if BT didn't want space in it.  In particular, they do not want to move any significant number of staff from Liskeard or St Austell to Bodmin.

The Section 151 officer was brought in to advise them in the strongest terms that their plan would prevent the Council from saving over £750,000 a year.  But those who had waved through provisions charging vulnerable people for transport to day centres and raising adult social care fees by more than 200% in some cases, seemed not to care.  As they were six out of ten in favour (all the Lib Dems plus Julian German) that carried the day.

Andrew Wallis who voted against with good reason, because it prioritised offices (for BT) over front line services for the vulnerable, has said, however, that he will now get behind the project.  No risk of a resignation on principle there then.

Look out all those struggling to make a crust in small shops and small sheds - your council tax/ business rates will be spent on quality office accommodation for the Council (or even BT).  Is Cllr Folkes listening to his own propoganda that there is no money?

In addition.....

Rumours circulate that the Cabinet's extremely controversial decision about the closure of the Mexico Inn level crossing at Long Rock may be 'called in' for review.  Many members of the public were present for that debate.

Increased charging for transport for vulnerable people and adult social care were waved through.  Some residents may now pay up to nearly £800 a week (a rise of over 200%)

It was probably unavoidable but I was sad to see the break up of the Carn Brea Leisure Centre.  Even if the running track is remade at Redruth School (and I hope it is) I doubt it will ever be as satisfactory as it is attached to the public leisure centre.

£100,000 per year was agreed to support the Cornish language provided the government grant us £400,000.  Apparently the language has reached 'a turning point' on which the Council must capitalise.

The Council will be offered the choice of voting for 42,250 houses (approved by the last Council) or 47,500 ( the minimum that officers consider will be acceptable to the Planning Inspectorate).  A debate for 14th January.

Why we didn't amend the Council Budget; an anorak's guide

As my colleagues from the last Council will know I support constructive Budget amendments.   So why not this year?

Well, amendments can only make a good budget better.  They cannot fix a bad budget.  Despite that we still submitted an amendment for the approval of the Monitoring Officer and Section 151 Officer.

However, this year the goalposts were changed.  I was informed that the amendment would not be acceptable for debate as an additional resolution but only to amend one of the budget resolutions already proposed.  Further, that the Monitoring Officer considered that all the Budget resolutions should be taken together (as they were on the day despite the suggestion of Mebyon Kernow to the contrary).

We could not support the whole Budget because it has made so little progress in addressing the problems the Council faces.  The Cabinet are not being tough enough early enough on the the Council's own costs. For example, how can a vanity project like building an ivory tower in Bodmin for BT be supported?  The costs of projects like Bodmin will come out of the money which could otherwise be spent on front line services.

In theory we could have submitted a whole different Budget but that would have been an undeliverable amount of work for the Finance Department.   There is also the difficulty that where it involves staff changes you need to consult staff and the unions.  Realistically, this is just not possible from the back benches in terms of logistics or timetable, assuming, of course, that the Cabinet was prepared to facilitate it.  We circumvented this last year by supporting the Lib Dem amendment- officers had not blocked that from going forward because they were convinced it would fail.  Arguably, they were being more cautious this year - hence the moving of the goalposts.

Finally, our amendments or alternative budget proposals would need others' support and we doubt that there is enough appetite in this Council to take an early grip of difficult issues.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Cutting services or cutting costs?

Cornwall Council has voted for its budget with a 1.97% rise in Council tax and cuts to many services.

I voted against. I think this administration does not have the will power to take tough decisions.

They talk the talk that they need to save masses of money but they do not walk the walk. The longer it takes them to take tough decisions on the cost of the Council's management structure and its surplus assets, the less money there will be to spend on services for the people of Cornwall.

I could not support the Budget because it involves cuts to services but does not look to further reduce the Council's own costs in a serious way.

As was perfectly clear from the Budget debate, members of the controlling groups would not generally back this approach if we had joined their administration.

I fear that the Council is in severe danger of becoming a self serving institution rather than one that serves the public.

Much consultation was done with the public on the proposed budget cuts but derisory notice was taken of the results. Indeed the leader says they have failed to convince people of the severity of the financial situation facing the Council. This budget suggests that they have failed to convince themselves.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Swindon children

In response to Cllr Wallis' blog comments.

I asked a serious question about a matter that is within his remit and was referred to me as appearing on the home page of the Mirror website at the weekend.   He said that he did not know the answer and the dismissive manner of his reply made me believe that he did not care. Not until a tweet mentioned his blog yesterday evening did I know that he did make enquiries.   Cllr Wallis does not mention my later tweet when I said that the story goes way back.  So for the sake of completeness here it is.

So the correct answer to my original tweet is:   Yes Cllr Wallis will ask if there is any substance to a story in a national paper about other authorities sending their children to Cornwall and it is surely right that he has.   His original response could therefore have been less dismissive and we could have saved the time of the monitoring officer.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Secrecy over Leisure Centres' sudden closure

I have been asked about the sudden closure of the leisure centres in both Saltash and Liskeard.

To my amazement the Council has been economical with the truth about why the Saltash and Lux Park Centres were suddenly closed on Friday.   The Council writes press releases on all manner of things but none when its agent suddenly closes its leisure centres.

This is inexcusable.   It will have caused inconvenience to the public and shows a failure of organisation.  It also shows a failure of effective communications - the Mills Report told the Council to get its act together on this when it investigated the unscheduled closure of Newquay Airport by the former LibDem County Council.

The sorry state of many of our leisure centres is being hidden from the public.  This is wrong.   It is particularly surprising when the Council has set itself up to win the trust of the public- and it is consulting on what services the public 'want' cut.

I call on the Council to explain the sudden closures.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Alex Folkes; a man with no plan

Alex Folkes could not remember the Council using the phrase 'no money, no choices' (see my blog on Living Wage). The actual phrase (Council Press Release 2nd September) was 'the reality is we have no choice: times are hard and there is no money'.

An Ivory Tower – in Bodmin

Cornwall Council is proposing to build a big new office block in Bodmin.   This was originally considered by the last Council in the context of a large deal with BT.  That proposal included a “centre of excellence” for procurement services which would be used by BT throughout the south of the UK.

The present leadership of the Council organised protests against that deal but now seem to think that the much smaller deal which I proposed is doing “rather well” – in their own words.

When we enquired about whether an opportunity would be taken to extend the scope of the BT deal, there seemed to be a limited appetite and certainly no momentum behind doing so.

So what you would not expect in those circumstances would be a proposal to build a big office block in Bodmin speculatively hoping that BT will wish to share it.

LibDems generally voted against the 'big' BT deal in the last administration and yet they still long for the ivory tower (estimated cost £15m) that might have gone with it.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

West Briton Letter

Derek Elliott of UKIP and Cornwall Councillor (Letters 7 Nov ) is perfectly entitled to point out that he did not support his leader and the other members of his group.   They voted in favour of Cllr Egerton's motion to consider a 6 per cent rise in council tax but he did not. One UKIP member was absent.

Now he says he leaves his UKIP badge at home.  Perhaps it would have been fairer to the voters of Four Lanes if he had stood as an independent candidate.

On the other hand, as I understand UKIP portrays itself as a low tax party, he may feel entitled to ask his colleagues to give up their UKIP badges.

I think he is unfair in describing Conservatives as 'sheep' because they all voted against 6 per cent.  They voted as they saw fit.

Fiona Ferguson CC
Conservative Group Leader
07731 548 139

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The Living Wage

On Tuesday there was a big debate on the living wage.  This is a great aspiration and I haven’t come across anyone who would deny better wages to our lowest paid.

The Lib Dem/independent administration at Cornwall Council has said,   “We have no money, no choices”.   So they have been asking what services people would like to see cut.

In the wider Cornish economy it would be hypocritical to increase wages to our staff while buying in services from others who do not pay it.   How will the Council control the wages of all their suppliers?  And would this put private sector jobs at risk?

While at the same time cutting a range of essential services, they think that it would cost the Council over £1 million to implement the living wage over the next five years.  But their figures are untested and do not include the knock-on impact it will have throughout the rest of the Council.  They estimate that it would also cost schools more than £5 million over the same period.

The real cost will be inflated by negotiations with the unions on maintaining the differentials of other pay grades - a cost described by officers as potentially 'huge'.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Council Chief Executive Appointment

I have just spent two days as a member of the panel selecting the new Chief Executive for Cornwall Council. The appointment of the Chief Executive is a political hot potato and I am sure that played some part in me being singled out to chair the panel. But councillors are here to make decisions and I will not duck my responsibilities.

The new Chief Executive is Andrew Kerr, the Chief Operating Officer at Cardiff City Council. Prior to that he was Chief Executive at Wiltshire Council until the (Conservative) leader decided that she did not need a chief executive at all - an idea which has been rejected by Cornwall Council. Prior to that he was the Chief Executive at North Tyneside Council.

I know that many people feel that we ought to be able to find a Cornish person to do this job. But, even if it were legal to discriminate in favour of a suitable Cornish candidate, I think that, in facing the enormous financial challenges ahead of us, having a very experienced Chief Executive will benefit us.

I also think that with a mixed bag political coalition in charge of Cornwall, with no clear agenda, the Council cannot manage without a Chief Executive.

The most important factor is to act promptly in order to safeguard Council services as best we can.

I think that Andrew's approach will be persuasive rather than confrontational and I hope that he can start on the job as quickly as possible. I understand that he is not immediately going to move his family here because he has children at critical schooling ages. That is an entirely personal matter.

I am pleased that his salary will be about 20 per cent less than that paid to Kevin Lavery. Still a lot of money I am afraid, but we have managed to take advantage of the market drop in salary levels for chief executives.

I wish Mr. Kerr the very best of luck.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Lies, more lies and statistics

The Council's bite size budget guide claims that we have made large savings in the last Council by, amongst other things, reducing our workforce from 22,000 to 14,000. We did make big savings - £170million.

The reduction in staffing sounds like a truly impressive statistic if we were doing the same with 2/3 of the staff. But it is highly misleading.

In fact 4000 (18 per cent) of the reduction relates to the transfer of teaching staff to academies. The schools make that decision and their pay is not part of our net budget.

We transferred almost 3000 staff to companies generally wholly owned by the Council- so no staff saving there.

Overall redundancies to achieve efficiencies were about 1000 out of a total of 10700 (22000 less the schools staff)- so more like 10% than the 33% quoted in the guide.

Newquay Meeting - Update

I said that at the Newquay meeting someone had raised the issue of the value of 63 officers attending one meeting.

I can now confirm that the actual number is 68 , most of them are Cornwall Council - but not all.

Mabe - Budget Meeting, 3rd October

Mabe Last Night

Attended the Mabe Budget event last night - 2 Council officers, 6 Cornwall Councillors and 12 good and true members of the public.

I had to leave early but by the time I left I no-one had suggested any Council services they would like to be cut - the fundamental question that Cllr Folkes was asking- although someone suggested moving to fortnightly bin collections.

A participant asked Cllr Folkes to consider again whether savings could be made by not building an incinerator. Another committee is going to look at this but Cornwall Waste Forum's consultants have still not said why they think residual waste (left after maximum recycling) would go to landfill with tax at £2 a ton. Everybody else advises that it would be £80 a ton, which would drive a coach and horse through their savings.

Someone suggested more use of video conferencing etc to reduce business mileage. This is a proposal that I have made on a number of occasions.

It was suggested that staff be allowed to go part time to save money. Apparently they can if they are over 55 years old.

No one had suggested cutting the number of councillors by the time I left. It is perfectly true that this is not in our power. However, the point made by a member of the public at a previous meeting was that the costs of councillors are much greater than our allowances/expenses. There are the more indirect expenses - for example, many meetings attended by numerous highly paid officers. We would have more concept of the value of officers' time if we measured what it costs the Cornish taxpayer.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

6% Budget Increase

Only six per cent?

I was sorry to miss the discussion on Laurence Reed show yesterday about Cllr Bob Egerton's motion to raise council tax by six per cent.

As the supporters of the motion had not decided what they wanted the money for I am not sure how they reached the view that six per cent would cover it.

I do not believe that people in Cornwall could afford it and I cannot support it.

Although I am not surprised to see this motion from Bob - generally speaking history has shown that independent councillors tend to be in favour of council tax hikes - I was surprised to see UKIP supporting a discussion around 6 per cent.

The UKIP 2013 Election manifesto promised a “smaller state with lower taxes”. So is this just a local case of forgetfulness?

Budget Meeting - Newquay

Last night I attended a Budget Consultation in Newquay - one of a series of 23. There were 7 Cornwall Councillors (including the Leader), a good attendance from Newquay Town Council, three Council officers (including the Corporate Director for Environment) and about 6 valiant members of the public.

There were a number of empty seats

There were no suggestions as to which Council services might be cut - which was the fundamental question. But there was a suggestion that the number of councillors be cut.

Cllr Folkes said that members' allowances were a mere 0.4 per cent of the Budget. That is still over £2 million - so equal to more than half the total budget for leisure centres.

Of course, as someone remarked, our true cost is much higher when you consider all the meetings we have etc.. Personally, I think that it would be a good idea to start measuring those costs. Democracy is very important but cost is an issue, and we cannot control what we don’t measure.

Several expressed concern about staff (especially excess layers of management) and staff pensions. Cllr Folkes said that he was looking at it but not for this budget. Indeed, he suggested that, as the pension scheme was so expensive, one option would be to close it to new members. So cuts to services now but looking at staff later. That this is what the Secretary of State Eric Pickles refers to as a 'lazy choice'.

There was a feeling of lack of trust in the Council. Had it really done all it could to save money by efficiencies? I, for one, think that the Council could do better and that is where to start. A member of Newquay Town Council referred to two events held in Newquay this year which required a sign off from Cornwall Council. He said that 63 officers of the Council had to be invited to a meeting on these events.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Council Tax Support Scheme

Some concern was expressed that I mentioned a member of the public by name at the last Full Council meeting in the context of a question to Alex Folkes on his change of tune on the Council Tax Support Scheme.

Ms Kent got in touch with me to thank me for raising her issue and to confirm that she had indeed given her name on the Radio and did not wish to be anonymous.

I am glad that my proposal to allocate £1 million to assist residents adversely affected by the changes to the Scheme was eventually accepted by Full Council. However, I think events have borne out that the Council was right in January not to absorb the whole cost of this reduction in central government funding - although many in the current Cabinet, including Cllr Folkes, thought that it should.

More flip flopping from Alex Folkes.

The Council slashes services but protects staff

In May the Liberal Democrats promised to cut parking charges across Cornwall. They also promised to cut waste and inefficiency, not the services local people rely on.

Unfortunately the Lib-Dems have a track record of breaking election promises. Even cast-iron written commitments - as in the case of tuition fees.

Prior to last May it was well known that there would be significant further government budget reductions.

Conservative pressure at County Hall kept the last administration under budget for the last 4 years. The new Liberal Democrat Finance Portfolio Holder (Cllr Folkes) immediately spent the budget surplus from last year and is now predicting being over budget this year- without any further government cuts.

Now in a position to make a difference, Cllr Folkes is prepared to slash any service to save money. But he has ruled out looking at staff pay in this year's budget.

He thinks that it is easier to cut services and raise council tax than consider reducing the council's pay bill of over £200,000,000.

The last administration saved £170 million, but we would be the first to say that there was more to do.

Cllr Folkes' delay will make it more difficult to protect services to the vulnerable, leisure centres and libraries, buses and roads.

In the last Council a series of public consultation events on the budget were led, very capably, by Councillor John Keeling, Chairman of Scrutiny, not the Cabinet member responsible for the Budget. So there was more listening to the public and less lecturing. As Conservatives, we supported this approach.

Cllr Folkes complains that my group turned down an invite to a private meeting with him on the Budget. Quite frankly, there are far too many meetings behind closed doors at County Hall under the new administration.

Right of Way Re-opened

I would like to thank local residents, especially George Budge, for all the effort they put in to help get the shortcut past Carvedras Yard re-opened. This has been used for generations as a shortcut, for example, to the railway station and Bosvigo School.

I know that the legal processes seem to have taken forever but, just as the Council’s formal notice to remove the obstruction was about to expire last Friday, a through route was reopened by the landowner.

The formal statements which we took from local residents convinced the Council that they could and should take action. They also persuaded the landowner to comply with (at the eleventh hour) the Council’s demand to reopen the route.

However, there is more to do. Part of the area has been cordoned off by the landowner by a monstrous fence. I will now try to get the status of this right of way formalised to minimise the risk of it being obstructed in the future and try to get the fence removed.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

My Letter of 28th January to Cornwall Council Leader Jim Currie


There has been much debate about whether use of "voice risk analysis'
is ethical and on whether it works.

However, the most important question is why was it being done secretly.

If it's OK ethically why the secrecy?

If it doesn't work if the interviewee knows it is being used then it
is no use when people find out. So not much of a shelf life?

It was always going to come out. What I hope I have done is to make
it public before the interviews took place.

I have put a motion to Council to try to restore public trust that
the Council will not use it in future.


My Resignation letter from the Cabinet


As you know, it came to my attention that the contract let to Capita
(before I took up my portfolio duties) to survey claimants of the
single person's council tax relief will include the use of "Voice
Risk Analysis" (VRA) techniques when making phone calls to claimants.

These techniques are sometimes called "lie detector" tests.

It is clearly right that Cornwall Council takes a strong line against
people who deliberately mis-claim tax benefits but in this case I am
more concerned about the impact on the vast majority of honest claimants.

In passing, although this does not deal with my fundamental ethical
objection, I note that the techniques used by Capita were trialled by
the Department of Work and Pensions in 24 local authorities on the
processing of Housing Benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.

Their report issued in September 2010 said: "From our findings it is
not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and
consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not
compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP."

I have discussed this matter with the Monitoring Officer. He has
advised me that, as this is an operational matter in relation to a
contract that the Council has already entered into, he strongly
advises me that I should not require that this software is not
used. If, contrary to his advice, I maintain my stance that we must
not use this software then officers will comply provided you also agree.

You have made it clear to me that you will not agree. Indeed, you
have said that I will be 'sacked' if I inform members that this
software will be used.

That will not be necessary. Please accept my resignation with
immediate effect.

May I say that I have no reason whatsoever to believe that you were
aware of this aspect of the contract before I drew it to your
attention. I also appreciate that you are in a difficult position in
view of the Monitoring Officer's advice. But, I do not believe that
his advice is correct and I cannot accept it on ethical grounds. I
also do not believe that it will help the Council to pursue fraud
(which we must surely do) if the public think we are using this
software. Finally, I fear that it will be extremely damaging to our

Therefore, I am launching a petition to require any use of this type
of technology to be approved by Full Council.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Conservatives continue to push for NO council tax rise for third year

Conservatives on Cornwall Council reiterated
their aim, at a meeting on Friday, that it is a
priority to push for a zero change in the
Cornwall Council part of the Council tax for a third consecutive year.

Conservative Group Leader Fiona Ferguson
explained, "It is becoming more and more
difficult to achieve no increase in Council tax
but we also know how difficult the financial
situation is for many people in Cornwall and we
will continue to try to reach this goal.

"I have taken over the Finance Portfolio from the
new leader, Cllr Currie. I take my hat off to him
for the work achieved to date in saving £170m
from the Council Budget. I know he is sceptical
that a zero rise can be achieved but I am
determined to work towards this goal."

The meeting also pressed for the increase of an
emergency fund to help those who find themselves
in difficulty as government changes to the
welfare system take place. They also promised to
feed back any experiences from Cornwall so that
the government is fully aware of issues faced in Cornwall.

The budget proposals will face a week of scrutiny
by Cornwall council members starting on the 21st
January leading to an extraordinary meeting of
the full council on 26th February to set the
council tax figures for the next year.

Contact: Fiona Ferguson 07731 548139