Thursday, 6 August 2015

Penzance 400 over spend report

After much mud slinging, hand wringing, press coverage and the like. The report into the over spend for the Penzance 400 celebrations has been published and placed in the public domain. Here I want to draw attention to some of the points but as it is 35 pages long and available online for those willing to go through it, I won't here. Although of course I have been through it and am willing to talk about either in the comments section below or via email robscornishblog@gmail.com.



As a short summary of what happened. The council had agreed to hold events to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the town receiving a charter last year. Although a number of events including a charter fair, a beating the bounds ceremony, theatrical performances, a Penlee exhibition were organised the big event was the 'Pirates on the Prom' Guiness World Record Attempt. To cover the costs of running these events the town council budgeted for £22,850 (which came from £12,000 sponsorship and £10,850 from council budgets. There was a HLF bid to pay for the rest. Unfortunately and what was a rather embarrassing mistake picked up in the report, there was another bid being entered for Penlee House, the problem being one organisation can not apply for 2 grants simultaneously. Therefore the PZ 400 bid was withdrawn, the rest of the narrative is picked up in the report:

"When the clash of bids was finally realised (late February 2014), the bid from PZ400 was withdrawn, with less than three months before the event. By then a substantial number of contracts had been issued and considerable advance publicity arranged – not least the event was being featured in First Great Western’s onboard magazine. 

It is clear cancelling the event at such short notice was not a practicable option available to the Council or the Director of the event, without causing serious damage both to the reputation and financial standing of the Town and the wider area. 

Finally, with only days to go before the event, both Cornwall Council and Devon & Cornwall Police raised their requirements for Health & Safety and Policing the event. There had apparently been insufficient advance dialogue with these parties to plan for these eventualities. 

The day itself, although it did not break the Guinness Book of Records figure, was by all accounts a success and went off without a hitch. The event brought a large number of people to Penzance – who spent a considerable amount of money in the town." Page 17 

This is where procedures went out the window. The council remained committed to the total spend which had rocketed to £63,622.75, therefore £55,846.81 over the agreed budget. This money was duly spent and recorded through the Finance and Property Committee. However there was no official decision to spend this extra money (as demanded by the Council's Standing Orders and Financial Regulations). The report unfortunately did not apparently uncover record of who made these decisions although the money was spent. It neither reveals what council and other members of the Penzance 400 Organising Committee had to say when it was reported to them that the HLF bid would not be submitted. Certainly staff and members of the council were aware of this problem and surely aware of the increasing potential financial liability for the council.

There are a number of recommendations and conclusions in the report, they are well worth a read (as is the whole report). For me, my culpability and the reason I should apologise is for not paying better attention and asking more questions. The Good Councillor Guide is clear in the following statement: "As a councillor, you share collective responsibility for financial management of the council." (page 3) The report notes that the Penzance 400 spend went over budget it also notes that only 1 councillor picked this up, this is clearly not good enough with any amount of money let alone £55,000+. This is even though clearly in black and white to 3 committee meetings it was in the papers the difference between the budgeted and actual expenditure. It's with little surprise that one of the report's recommendations is this:

"Councillors in Penzance Town Council have, on this issue, abdicated their responsibility to scrutiny. This is a fundamental duty and should be carried out regularly and within the public domain. If scrutiny had been regularly exercised this issue would never have arisen." Page 31

Draw your own conclusions from the report available online here, There is various levels of blame levelled at people in authority and those more involved in the day to day matters of this. But for myself even though I was not in a position of authority within the council relevant to this over spend, I have to be aware that the major role of councillors is to ask questions, to not show complacency to always be listening, reading and scrutinising and acting accordingly.

I hope this report will be ultimately a good thing for the council and councillors will consider what is asked of them more readily, I also hope that the Report's recommendation of healing differences between members is listened to. We have this huge devolution agenda coming up and Penzance Town Council seems eager to have more powers, responsibilities and bigger budgets, I feel for this to happen we need to show the people of this town that was can deal with what we do now, in a professional and competent manner.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

the Cornwall Devolution Deal and the continuing centralisation to Cornwall Council

With the Cornwall Devolution Deal announced last week, we must ask what about powers within Cornwall. The fact is Cornwall is one of the most centralised local government areas anywhere in the UK. Lacking the middle tier of local government in districts and boroughs. Although there is lots of talk of localism and 'double devolution', what does this all actually mean? What do the current plans entail?

To turn first to the Case for Cornwall, as readers are probably aware this is the document put together by Cornwall Council asking the government for more powers. (available here). This is where the term double devolution comes from as the document explains:

"Together the Case for Cornwall and the Council’s continuing ambition to devolve embrace the notion of double devolution. Getting powers and responsibilities devolved to as low a level as possible, subject to sound governance and delivery arrangements being in place, demonstrates the common commitment of the Government and the Council to empower communities and ensure true local ownership and accountability." p.18/19

Here there is a great deal on principle and mighty fine it is too. There isn't a clear commitment to address the issue of centralisation in Cornwall and to take some of the powers and facilities and bring them back to local control. 

Nailing down what this actually means is harder to find. There are few mentions of town and parish councils in the document. They overwhelmingly talk about towns and parishes in reference to the council tax referendum cap. Which was placed on principle local authorities by the government to force a referendum if they sought to raise council tax by more than 2%. Interestingly it also includes police authorities, so far Bedfordshire police has been the only authority of any kind to call a referendum, lost overwhelmingly 69.5% against. The reason other authorities haven't is they obviously fear this result, so the coalition government effectively created a block on council tax rises.

However towns and parishes have not, so far, been included in the cap. Which allowed Penzance Town council for example, to raise the precept by 5% for the last year and 35.53% for this year. This is quite common in Cornwall and elsewhere as a result of budget cuts the principal authorities have shed services due to budget cuts and towns and parishes have taken on services and raised their precept to pay for it. Although this is a huge issue and leaving towns and parishes out of the referendum cap and I can understand why Cornwall Council included it in the Case for Cornwall.

However it is the only mention of towns and parishes in any substance in the whole of the Case for Cornwall document. I can understand to an extent that devolution should be bottom up not top down that it shouldn't be Cornwall Council's role to dictate devolution, I still feel it doesn't bode well for how seriously devolution within Cornwall is taken.

As we know the Case for Cornwall was not accepted by government and instead we now have the Cornwall Devolution Deal. If we can criticise the Cornwall Council devolution ideas for not considering devolution downwards then the government's announcement is deplorable. It doesn't even mention town and parish councils.

It does seem like we now will have devolution that gives more power to Cornwall Council. That takes more decisions and puts them in fewer hands. Although I firmly remain in favour of devolution it does trouble me that the Cornwall Devolution Deal does not deliver on 'double devolution'. In 2009 local government was centralised into Cornwall Council and it seems this process of concentrating power and decision making has picked up pace...




Thursday, 16 July 2015

Devolution for Cornwall a nod in the right direction


Today David Cameron will come to Cornwall and outline a devolution deal for Cornwall (Council). As always the devil will be in the detail and we have to be cautious of what is said and what actually comes to pass.

However it would be churlish of me to dismiss the deal out of hand. I've written before and spoke at hustings earlier this year, about freeing Cornwall from the dead hand of Westminster. Allowing us to be free from policies that don't suit Cornwall. Although there is much progress talked about in the media, there is still work to do. As much as it gladdens me that Cornwall will gain back control of European funding, be free to develop renewable energy, integrate and join up hospitals and health care, to make public transport make more sense by aligning bus and train times. 

My criticisms are about what it does not include. Planning and housing are not included, the promise of being able to develop a Cornish planning policy framework and redefining affordable housing to mean something to people on local wages are sorely lacking. As is powers to define here what housing numbers are needed and of course the option to limit second homes. In all these areas one size fits all policies from Westminster will continue to reign. Housing and planning is just one area and there are similar comments to be made about others.

I do think it was a grave mistake for the government's deal to not be debated in the public realm. It falls well short of Cornwall Council's Case for Cornwall, although many such as Bernard Deacon have criticised it's lack of public engagement. It is at least a great deal more than the government's deal which hasn't even had the pretence of public consultation and wasn't even discussed by Cornwall Councillors in public session. 

Fundamentally it must be said it means giving Cornwall Council more powers. It is already the largest unitary authority in the 'country'. I still do not feel that the centralisation of local government to Truro was a process that was completed satisfactorily and that the unitary authority ever really found it's feet. What makes the Cornish devolution deal a landmark case is not the fact that it is the first "rural area" i.e. non city, it is the fact that it is devolution without any new structures or institutions. Wales got an assembly as did London, Scotland got a parliament, various cities got new mayors. It looks as though Cornwall Council will be given a whole raft of powers without anything new, no new politicians and no elections. 

As anyone that's ever read my blog before will know I am wholly in favour of a Cornish assembly. Devolving power to a new body with a strategic focus and the ability to set funding priorities and make new laws. Underneath that having local government to do what local government does. My fundamental criticism is that the Cornwall Council deal will be a fudge of both being neither a national strategic government nor a local administrative one. Perhaps I will be proved wrong, I wait with baited breath... 

Over all though this must be welcomed as a step in the right direction, even for it's flaws. A brief chink in the armour of the overly centralised state in which we live. I sincerely hope the freedoms that are given to Cornwall Councillors are utilised to the best possible advantage. The Welsh politician Ron Davies said that "devolution was a process not an event" I think we have to see this in that context and hope it is true in our case...

See also the Mebyon Kernow press release on the devolution deal here