Saturday, 31 May 2014

LibDems oppose secret ballot. (PR but not as we know it?)

Are we seeing the re -emergence of the 'rotten borough' in Cornwall?  Cornwall had the largest number until they were all abolished by the Reform Act 1832. There were about 13 including East Looe, West Looe, Callington and Saltash. (Callington: 42 voters for one member of parliament).
And with no right to a secret ballot until 1872, bully boy tactics could be used to get a preferred candidate elected.

Nothing new at Cornwall Council
Most Council decisions are taken by show of hands or named vote in the interests of transparency. But by convention election to positions of special responsibility are taken by secret ballot.  But the Lib Dem/Indie administration are so worried that their own supporters will not vote for the administration's preferred candidates that they have dispensed with that convention.

For example, on Tuesday the Lib Dems wanted to make sure their candidate, Mebyon Kernow councillor for Callington, Andrew Long, was elected as Chairman of East Planning Committee (extra Special Responsibility Allowance  £6,000 per annum).

 Mebyon Kernow have only 4 out of 123 council members. Councillor Long only won the Chairmanship by one vote last year despite behind the scenes party whipping by the Lib Dems.

So this year the Lib Dem councillor Bob Austin asked that the vote for Chairman be taken by named vote to keep the Lib Dem members under control.  

Just like the 19th century.  Bully boy tactics from the party which sees civil liberties as their issue.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Cardboard voting

The feed back I have had about the cardboard voting booths seems to be pretty conclusive.


At least one polling station has reported 100% dissatisfaction rating with the cardboard by the polling invigilators.      The most common complaints were lack of privacy, flimsy construction and unsuitability for some older voters or anyone who might lean accidentally on the booth.

No consideration had been given the large size of the ballot papers and the small writing area.  It wasn’t possible to see the whole of the ballot paper at one time.

Many couples arrive at the polling station together and the cardboard dividers do not provide sufficient privacy to guarantee a secret ballot.    This is a fundamental requirement that was not met.

We all understand the need to save money but the importance of the occasion when everyone has the right to say how the country is governed should be an occasion of some dignity.    These cardboard constructions do not fit the bill.

These contraptions should be recycled and then rethought.

Lightweight rubbish to be recycled and Cllr Folkes

Strategic Housing Framework: more action, less words needed

Last week the Council approved its Strategic Housing Framework. It was a bit of a disappointment.

We all know about the shortage of affordable housing in Cornwall so:

1. Why nothing on an effective incentive scheme to encourage people to downsize where appropriate to their needs? (It is said that 3,580 households in Cornwall are living in overcrowded conditions.)

2. Why did the Council fail to apply to the £3.2 billion Government fund for money for affordable homes? A bidding round closed on 30th April.

3.  There are opportunities to exempt areas from the right to buy legislation but the Council appears to have done nothing about this.

This Council needs to spend less time on its 'Frameworks' and  more taking practical steps to alleviate the affordable housing shortage.

National pay increases are a pay freeze?

I was surprised to see the Collective Agreement with the unions over terms and conditions described as a local pay freeze. It is anything but.

Rises in pay of most staff at Cornwall Council is negotiated with the unions nationally. This has the benefit that the Council does not need to devote resource to pay bargaining. But it means that the Council is obliged to implement the pay rises agreed nationally - whether it can afford to or not.  All that is now guaranteed to remain in place until at least 2017.

Staff are also guaranteed their existing terms and conditions such as 28 days' holiday after 5 years' service and six months full sick pay and six months on at least half sick pay. 

They also receive 1.75 times their statutory entitlement if they are made redundant.  Interestingly, at the same time the Council announced that, due to budgetary pressures, it will cease to pay teachers any more than their statutory redundancy entitlement. Any extra compensation will need to be funded by the relevant school from its budget.

But Council staff will give up their right to be considered for a bonus on top of their normal pay until 2017.  

The living wage is to be introduced for all directly employed staff. The Council cannot afford to extend this to its subsidiaries such as Cormac where many staff are paid less. It will also not extend to the Council's suppliers. There has been a great deal of concern expressed by the care sector that the failure of the Council to raise their contractual rates will make it a struggle for care homes to meet even the recently increased minimum wage. 

The Collective Agreement is estimated by the Council to save £5.4m a year. The remainder of their target reduction of £190m by 2018/19 it presumably intends to come mainly from jobs cuts and service reductions.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Flag fiasco blame game

You have to admire Cornwall Council's PR attempt to turn a botched decision not to spend £200 on a Blue Flag into a triumph of mediocrity.

Portfolio holder Edwina Hannaford told Westcountry TV that the Seaside Awards were "near as good" as Blue Flags.  There is then a photo shoot of  the jubilant recipients of second prize  (probably costing more than the £200 extra which would have secured a Blue Flag?).

Visit Cornwall said: " > I was emailed on the 5th February 2014 and informed that CC had decided not to apply for blue flags this year."

 Cornwall Council cabinet member for Environment, Heritage and Planning Edwina Hannaford said: “I’m sorry that the decision by Visit Cornwall not to apply for Blue Flag awards for these beaches was not discussed ....

The council now say: "...we have agreed that Cornwall Council will now help put together an application for Blue Flag status for Gyllyngvase beach for 2015 but that the application will be community led. "

So the Seaside Award won't be good enough next year?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Red Card for Blue Flags in Cornwall

All the English beaches which had Blue Flags last year have got them again this year with the exception of those owned by Cornwall Council.

Only the privately owned but publicly accessible Carbis Bay beach flies the coveted flag this summer.

Cornwall Council decided not to apply for Blue Flags this year.  That decision was made without consultation with local businesses or in the case of Gyllyngvase beach , Falmouth Town Council - the very people Cornwall Council now want to pay the bill in the future.

 It cost just £200 per beach less for Cornwall Council to have Seaside Awards rather than the internationally recognised and prestigious Blue Flags and yet the negative publicity will have already run into thousands of pounds. 

 Public comments on the Westcountry  TV  evening news  condemned the decision and highlighted the very things the administration should have seen.

 Those countries that rely on tourism such as Spain and Greece have hundreds of Blue Flag beaches, increasing year on year.  They recognise the importance of an international standard that everyone understands - so does everyone else except Cornwall Council..  

 Dawlish Warren, one of the worst struck areas of the winter storms has retained its Blue Flag for the 16th year running.  They obviously want their tourists to know that they are “Open for Business” and back up to their usual high standard.   

 What does Cornwall Council’s decision say about Cornwall?

The truth - but not as minuted!

This is the amendment to the minutes which I proposed but the Council rejected.   It was written by officers after viewing the webcast of the last meeting.

The truth is that Cornwall Council could have applied for extra funds from the Government to help address difficulties arising out of the so called bedroom tax but did not do so.

Is the Council embarrassed to have this set out in black and white?

Monday, 19 May 2014

Audit Committee summon Health finance meeting

Last Thursday I attended an extraordinary meeting of the Audit Committee called to 'interview' the Health and Finance Portfolio holders and to highlight its 'grave concern' about the continued large overspend in the Adult Social Care budget.

Recommendations had been made a year ago as to how the issue should be resolved but very little progress had been made.
We now have the new appointments of Trevor Doughty and Cllr McKenna.  Let us hope they can extricate the Council from its parlous state while dealing sensitively with those in receipt of Council services.

The ludicrous situation is that the Audit Committee cannot do anything.  It can only highlight its grave concerns to those that should do something.  In the case of Health this is actually three committees:
1. The Health and Well Being Board
2. The Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committee
3. The Health and Adult Care Portfolio Advisory Committee (PAC).

Trevor Doughty, Director of Health is required to report to all these committees (as well as the Children's PAC) which in my view is likely to hinder rather than help him do his job.

As the Health PAC is a creature of the Council rather than statute it should be scrapped.

If it has taken the Audit Committee to step in and get to grips with this issue, then the matter is urgent and the Director's  time is valuable.  It is not reasonable that he should spend unnecessary time reporting to multiple committees the structure of which has clearly failed.

It is a pity that the Council did not take greater heed of the recommendations  from the Independent Peer Review on Health last December.  This crucial piece of work has received a lot less exposure than other rather mundane issues.

The Council needs to get a grip on its priorities.   This is  a very large portfolio in budgetary terms and it is in financial crisis.   The portfolio holder for finance appears in the media claiming credit for everything from job creation to cardboard voting booths. Will he accept responsibility for improving this as well?

PS  The Health PAC then had a closed session meeting after the Audit Committee.

PPS Lastly credit where it is due to Andrew Wallis for supporting the call for an open debate on the issue of Cornwall Music Tuition Service at the last cabinet meeting.   Originally scheduled to be split into open and closed sessions he asked for it to be held in the open; and all the better for that.  Well done Andrew: you've shown that it can be done.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Cllr Folkes complains at the public's expense

Cllr Folkes has been complaining to Coucil legal officers about my criticism of him. So I feel obliged to respond.   It is hard not to remark at this point that Cllr Folkes can dish out criticism but he sure can't take it. 
It is also hard not to ask whether Cllr Folkes has reflected for a moment as to whether asking the legal team to investigate his complaints against fellow members is really a good use of public money.

What it’s about
Anyway, Cllr Folkes is upset about my comments to the Scrutiny Committee about the Budget Consultation process last year. I expressed the view that  Cllr Folkes' overriding objective of the (23) meetings with the public appeared to be to establish an evidence base that, despite the availability of a central government freeze grant, showed public backing of the Cabinet's plan to raise council tax by 1.97%.
In support of my argument I used a comment made between the two LibDem councillors on social media after one of these budget meetings.  Cllr Joyce Duffin asked Cllr Folkes 'Have we still won though??'  
I assumed that Cllr Duffin was referring to the straw poll taken at these events on what rise in council tax would be acceptable because it was the only aspect of those events where there was any element of vote or competition and the Cabinet had already announced that they were in favour of a rise of 1.97%. However, Cllr Duffin has subsequently told me that she was referring to a competition to see which area could get the most people to attend their event.  I accept that was what Cllr Duffin meant and I have apologised to her and to the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee and offered to make any other reasonable amends. 
It is only fair to say that I did not know of this competition and it was not made known to members of my group.   It, perhaps, reflects the administration's concern (well founded as it turned out) that very few members of the public would attend. Possibly the public shared my cynicism about these events. I recall that one I attended in Newquay had about 30 people present but only six were members of the public as opposed to officers or members of the Council or of the parish council (who also had their own separate 'summit').
Cllr Folkes has complained to the Chief Legal Officer that he has been wronged by what I said. I am happy to confirm publicly that I do accept that Cllr Duffin's remark did not justify the inference I made and I am very sorry about that misunderstanding. 
It is also fair to say that it is clear from Cllr Folkes' reply that he also did not understand that Cllr Duffin was referring to the (secret) competition.
Given the limitations of truncated text on social media it seems we both misunderstood Cllr Duffin and in the circumstances that was not unreasonable.

Honest opinion and fair comment
However, to avoid any confusion, I remain honestly and firmly of the view that Cllr Folkes' public consultation was really just a PR exercise and mainly aimed to establish an evidence base to justify the rise in council tax.  
As a member of the Council I should not be prevented from expressing my honest view and  I do not believe that legal officers of the Council should be used by cabinet members in this way.  
Cllr Folkes should stop wasting officers' time and taxpayers' money and get on with the job he is paid by taxpayers for doing.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Raising the Flag

Yesterday I visited the very last Blue Flag beach in Cornwall. This is the privately owned but publicly accessible beach below the Carbis Bay Hotel.

It looked stunning even in slightly blustery weather and even better on a nice day, as per the picture!

This year Cornwall Council decided not to apply for continued Blue Flag status for Gyllyngvase, Porthtowan and Polzeath.

Let us assume that there is a great deal of expense associated with retaining this flag other than the annual fee of £800 and that the Council really cannot afford it. Even so, what is completely unacceptable is the Council's failure to apply for the flag without consulting those affected.

The Seaside Award (which the Council claims will do instead) allows water quality, an absolute key statistic, to be 20 times less good than would be allowed for a Blue Flag beach.

On Wednesday I attended a Cabinet meeting at which the Cabinet voted to retain 19 community  committees across Cornwall which are supposed to help 'deliver localism' but many have questioned their effectiveness. It would appear the Council prefers the form to the substance of local decision making.