Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Charles Windsor and the Duchy of Cornwall need to change

If you had millions and had a public purse to dip into you'd look this happy

Today the accounts of the Prince Charles Duke of Cornwall have been released and they have caused quite a stir. The headlines are that Charles Windsor's income is up by a million pounds in the last year, funding from the taxpayer was up £298,000 and income from the Duchy of Cornwall was up 4% to a staggering £17,796,000. See more from the Guardians here Prince Charles's income up by £1m. This is huge blow for the reputation of this government, preaching austerity to others and slashes jobs and services on an unprecedented scale, yet the ruling class like the royals are spending more of taxpayers money. Quite why the royals can't pay their own way is question on everyone's lips, they certainly are rich enough and it is very callous the way they're spending public money whilst the civil service, companies and ordinary families are having to make do with less. 

Now why is this important here in Cornwall? "after all much of Duchy land is outside of Cornwall" is a familiar refrain but one that ignores Cornish history. The Duchy was created in 1337 to provide a living for the heir apparent, the institution of the Duchy was itself a successor to the earlier Earldom which 'inherited' the lands and titles of the independent Cornish kings at the time of the Saxon conquest. So a millennia ago lands in Cornwall and the whole of the Isles of Scilly were appropriated firstly by the Earls and later by the Dukes of Cornwall. The title of Duke also allowed many advantages such as ownership of the rivers of Cornwall, the foreshore and economic facets such as the right to ports dues and a percentage of the tin trade. The latter was collected through a system of coinage whereby a corner of all tin extracted in Cornwall was struck off as payment to the Duke.
Truro: just one of the coinage halls of Cornwall
Anyone with even an inkling of Cornish history will know that the tin trade in Cornwall was colossal and even in the middle ages production was in the hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year. As a result the Duchy and the Duke grew very rich getting a cut from the tin industry, land was bought outside of Cornwall. The tin industry and other monies raised through the Duke's rights in Cornwall (bono vacantia for example) and Duchy land provided the foundation for the expansion of the Duchy estate that we know today. In effect, the labour and toil of Cornish tinners through the centuries and rent paid by Cornish and Scillonian tenants was used to build the sprawling Duchy estate that exists today.  

So in effect I think Charley owes Cornwall more than a little and even a reasonable non-republican might expect the Duke to give something back to the people's whose ancestors keep him in luxury (not to mention the contemporary Cornish taxpayer who shoulders a large burden). This unfortunately couldn't be further from the truth take for example the fact that the Duchy is reluctant to build affordable housing in Newquay, read more on the Cornish Zetetics blog. Or read about the Duke's paltry donation to a statue of a miner in Penwith on the An Helghyer blog. Or the fact that the Duke expects the taxpayer to pay for improvements to his quay on Scilly, more on Alex Folkes blog. Or my own post on why the Duke ought to pay for the upkeep of his own beaches in Cornwall rather than leaving Cornwall Council with the bill.

Prince Charles and the Duchy of Cornwall are beyond cheeky, they spend taxpayers money like it's going out of fashion. The Duchy reaps large profits without the slightest inkling that it might give something back (one tradition that has sadly lived on from medieval times), this has to stop. The royals can't continue to live in their isolated bubble where austerity means nothing and the Duchy has to realise that it is high time that it gives something back to Cornwall. Perhaps Cameron would do well to go and explain to Clarence House the concept of the Big Society and outline what social responsibility is, we're all expected to do more for society with less, it's about time those that could make a huge difference chipped in.

A very interesting website: http://www.duchyofcornwall.eu/index.php

Thursday, 23 June 2011

tourism tax don't hold you breath, or how good food buys influence

My previous post Cornish Tourist Tax a Great Idea, has proved very popular and in terms of hits is well up there in my top ten most visited, which is a great surprise seeing as it's one of my most recent posts. So I drafted a blog yesterday explaining briefly, that a tourist tax would be workable as other places do it (e.g.the French bed tax and  the USA's entrance fee). Further that is doesn't appear to be detrimental there. Also rises in VAT and fuel duty have more of an effect on tourism and are much unfairer to everyone, but yet still haven't 'killed off' tourism. Also people love coming to Cornwall, there are much nearer destinations for tourists whether they be from Berlin, Birmingham, London or La Rochelle and I am sure they wouldn't mind paying an extra fee. This fee could indeed be used to improve infrastructure and have a knock on benefit to the vast majority of Cornwall's residents who don't work in tourism. But illuminating these arguments seems pointless as the tourist industry is very good at lobbying and I would say there is now no chance of a tourist tax. In fact the opposite, it looks as though the taxpayer will not only continue subsidising tourism promotion (Visit Cornwall) subsidising the loss-making Newquay airport but further that a  dedicated cabinet member for tourism will be created.

The reason that is the situation is the very efficent way in which the tourist industry lobbies and they know that the saying that the 'way to a man's heart is through his stomach' is also true of councillors. Who were treated to a cookery demonstration and food tasting at probably the finest venus of this sort in Cornwall, owned by Rick Stein. As Alex Folkes explains:
"First up was a cookery demonstration and tasting session kindly provided by the Seafood School (and duly declared by the councillors present in the register of gifts and hospitality). Great food prepared by two chefs with a great commentary and recipe cards for us to take home. The food itself was Spanish and comes from Mr Stein's new book." from the Lanson boy blog

Andrew Wallis also blogged about it, link here, they both seem to tell the same story; tourist tax is bad, Tom Flanagan should be flogged and explained to that tourism is very important for the Cornish economy. (Presumably had the tourist chiefs known that Tom Flanagan was going to damage their reputation in such a way he would have been treated to such hospitality) Andrew Wallis concludes and I think it sums up the position of both the Liberal Democrat (Folkes) and the Independent (Wallis):

"It was also agree in principle that the Tourism Panel and VCP should meet for regularly as in the last two years today was the first time both panels had met. This would work as it would have those in the industry who know the business and those in the business of politics singing from the same hymn sheet." (again from the link above)

Both bloggers have denounced tourist tax before Folke's tourist tax not a single positive comment and Wallis's Poll tax on tourist, so I don't think the finest celebrity chef designed food really budged them much. But it is of concern that Andrew Wallis mentions something very new after his sojourn to Padstow, that is the idea of a cabinet member for tourism:
"After the bed tax issue was discussed it was felt that tourism should be higher up on the political agenda. I agree, as for an industry that accounts for at least 25% of the Cornish economy there is no Cabinet position for Tourism."

So certainly whatever the price was to entertain these elected officials it certainly caused the Independent to have a change of heart, ( I don't know how much the bill was but here's a link to the corporate events page, "prices start from £1000 for group of 10 or less"). Assuming that Andrew enjoyed the hospitality and didn't pick up his own bill.

How does this look for democracy in Cornwall? it prompts me to ask these questions:
  • Should businesses that benefit from large public funding be able to entertain elected officials?
  • Would the other three quarters of Cornwall's industries benefit from public funding if they took councillors out for the night?
  • Might other industries use hospitality trips to curry favour and have their own industry specific panel?
  • Could homeless charities lavish councillors with hospitality and get the Supporting People's budget slash of 40% reversed?
  • Is it right and proper in this time of austerity and 2000 job losses at Cornwall Council, that councillors act in such a way?
As a side note I am not adverse to tourism it is important it employs about 10% of the Cornish labour force and contributes about 25% of our GDP, it would be foolish to undermine this trade. But that said, tourism does have a great amount of influence on Cornwall Council, tourism gets a large amount of funding yet our other industries such as fishing, farming, agricultrue, quarrying, china clay, manufacturing, retail, boat building, construction etc etc don't get these same benefits. This is why tourist tax is such a good idea, part of the money it raised could be used to pay for the Visit Cornwall budget, freeing up public funds to promote all of our industries. But first and foremost Cornwall Council and Cornish councillors need to think about how they conduct themselves in public when acting as councillors.

p.s. if this meeting of Cornwall Council's tourism panel was in fact paid for by the taxpayer I will happily apologise and no doubt write another post on that subject.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Localism, Devonwall and how to bring Cornish jobs back

This blog is not about the proposed Devonwall constituency that the government is imposing upon Cornwall and our dear neighbours. It is about the very real and insidious Devonwall that has beset Cornwall for decades. In this blog I am no arguing for notions of national identity, culture or history but about real bona fide jobs and how Cornwall is missing out on them. How we can and must harness localism to bring jobs back this side of the Tamar.

Devonwall has been around a long while, successive governments have sought to amalgamate services and departments of governance between Cornwall and Devonshire. Whether because they wanted offices closer to London, or they wanted to shore up electoral support in the key constituencies of Exeter and Plymouth, or they simply didn't care for Cornwall's economy, the result is the same, jobs moved eastward. With those jobs went more of Cornwall's decision making powers, I am not even talking about devolution here just the sort of decision making that English counties mostly enjoy.

The result of this centralisation is that the Cornish taxpayer involuntarily has 'outsourced' administration and management to Devon and the 'wider south west'. Devon and Cornwall Police is based in Exeter, the Startegic Health Authority is based in Taunton, Westcountry Ambulance Service based in Plymouth, and so the list goes on. It would take someone with a degree in finance and a masters in internet research to work out how many jobs are at these sites and what proportion of funding from Cornwall supports these offices and staff. But I think it's fair to say it is a lot of  money and a lot of jobs and all of these amalgamated offices aren't in Cornwall.
David Cameron told This Is Cornwall, (Nov 27th 2010):

"I think Cornish national identity is very powerful – people feel a great affinity with Cornwall. We're going to devolve a lot of power to Cornwall – that will go to the Cornish unitary authority."

The real question and challenge for Cornish politicians is how to buck this trend, how to keep Cameron to his word and how to harness the governments localism bill into bringing jobs back to Cornwall. So by a process of decentralisation the Cornish taxpayer no longer pays others to do jobs we could easily do here. We must encourage the government's proposals to bring power back to the town hall, if we can uncouple these services mentioned and others it would be a great boost for Cornwall's economy.

Our economy is still in a bad state we under perform in comparison to anywhere in the UK and most comparable regions of the EU and the fact that Westminster has been hitherto reluctant to keep public sector jobs in Cornwall has not helped. We still face a situation whereby Cornish youngsters leave Kernow in search of meaningful employment and those that stay earn well below UK average wages, localism offers an opportunity to alleviate some of these problems.

On the subject of localism, I very much hope that any jobs that are brought back to Cornwall are not all lumped together in Truro. Here in Penzance they would be very welcomed as I am sure they would be in Helston, Hayle, Bodmin, Wadebridge, Liskeard and a whole host of other towns. In terms of implementing this plan there are many buildings that used to house the old district councils (in Penzance for example) surely these could be adapted and/ or Cornwall Council could share offices with devolved bodies.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Inspirational Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network

The other day when I blogged about solar farms in Cornwall the independent Cornwall Councillor Andrew Wallis made a comment that "it is a shame having hundreds of the farms in Cornwall will not make electricity cheaper for the people of Cornwall." Indeed this is a very valid point, what is the benefit for a community to have a solar farm or wind farm built in their community? Perhaps a very good answer to this question (and solution to this problem) has been proposed by the people of the North Cornish town of Wadebridge. Forming the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN), they seek for the community to build renewable energy technologies for the benefit of the same community. By reducing the carbon output of the town and raising £300,000+ annualy for the Wadebridge Community Trust Fund.

Now this is a very inspiring, regardless of the energy aspects it is very encouraging to see a community coming together like this in a collective way for the common good. Also this organic approach of the community deciding it's own destiny rather than an external company and/or governmental authority imposing ideas ought to negate or at least lessen local opposition to proposed developments. As will the smaller developments needed unlike some of the larger planned wind and solar farms which have caused concern. I very much wish the WREN project well and do hope that other parts of Cornwall and beyond follow their path. So If anyone forms a Penzance equivalent do let me know.

I don't feel I have done WREN any justice in this blog so please do visit their excellent website for more info: http://www.wren.uk.com/, there are lots of explanations and ideas, how to support their campaign and a whole host of links to their Twitter, Facebook and You Tube pages.

The Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network will be featured on tonight's BBC Countryfile 20:00 (19/6)

Sunday, 12 June 2011

When's the deadline? Solar farms, Cornwall and the FIT review

photo from Business Cornwall website

I couple of articles about solar power have come to my attention since writing: Solar Farms why the government should be investing. They both concern Cornwall directly, the first comes from Andrew Wallis (the Independent councillor and implacable critic of Cornwall Council) which raise doubts that the planned solar farm by Cornwall Council will have to be abandoned due to the funding review. Andrew's blog is here: Solar Farm Gold Rush Over. The funding review of the Feed in Tariff certainly was a kick in the teeth for the Conservative- Independent coalition at County Hall as they had a lot riding on the old preferential rate as an old press release for the council explains: Cornwall Council prepares for £1 billion solar power gold rush. As Councillor Wallis rightly points out any Solar Farms will have to be set up and plugged into the grid by the first of August, which is really not long and Cornwall Council face abandoning the scheme after lots of work.

Which brings me to the other article, which is a news item by local PR firm Deborah Clark Associates; Solar Companies Granted Judicial Review, which explains that lots of companies have combined together to challenge the government's policy in court. It must be said that whatever side of the argument you are on for or against subsidy, it is a very shabby way to do business by the government. Quite why companies and organisations such as Cornwall Council were not given ample time to finish planned solar farms is outrageous. For a government supposedly committed to encouraging business, attitudes like this raise serious questions.

Anyway I digress, will we have the solar farms in Cornwall and elsewhere? it seems a little early to tell whether the Judicial Review might be successful and grant firms an extension of the subsidy or force the government to reconsider the whole thing.

On the subject of solar farms I must say that I am not supportive of them without condition and I share the concerns of Andrew Wallis about using agricultural land. (I have the same concerns about large scale house building on green field sites in Cornwall). However, it should be noted however that the Wheal Jane site where the council plan to build the solar farm is not farmland and is a disused tin mine. In cases like this where the visual impact is lessened by hills, valleys and trees and the land is not fit for farming or much else, these would have been (or might be if the government sees sense) the most suitable sites for medium and large scale solar developments
Generally on the subject of supplying energy for the future, we have to ask ourselves would we rather live next to a wind farm or a solar farm or a nuclear power station or a coal fired power station?
Would we rather our energy came from dangerous nuclear plants and the associated problems of spent fuel rods and nuclear waste?
Will we continue to rely upon fossil fuels which are a finite resource with year on year rising costs?
On the subject of subsidies we might ask why the government is subsidising nuclear energy and not renewable energy, it's clear the subsidy is not the issue. The government favours nuclear power.

Friday, 10 June 2011

a Cornish tourist tax, a great idea

One of the senior officers at Cornwall Council Tom Flanagan has created something of a stir by suggesting a tourist tax at a committe in Westminster. In his own words he explains:
“Cornwall has 26 million visitor nights per year. If you put £1 per head per bed that could raise £26 million which could go into investment. These are funding opportunities for Cornwall if we are given the freedom."

Now there is some controversy that this has come from an officer rather than a councillor and it probably wasn't the most astute move talking about it in Westminster before councillors had discussed it. It does highlight the concern of people in Cornwall that the officers run the show at Lys Kernow, this needs to be addressed (another day perhaps).  But that said, the idea of a tourist tax has been kicking around for years, I've no doubt that councillors have discussed it before and are more than aware of the arguments. So let's for a second consider the idea.

The costs of tourism

Cornwall has a large number of visitors every year, they place a strain on all of our services. They contribute to the wear and tear of our roads, they use our hospitals, need our police force and need our lifeguards. In a fiscal sense the Cornish taxpayer is responsible for maintaining vital aspects of the tourist industry. In a very real sense, we suffer because our roads are busy in the summer it takes longer to drive anywhere, our towns are busier with holiday makers. Also the council pays a great deal to support the tourist industry, funding the the Cornwall tourism board not to mention the loss making Newquay Airport. Also the prominence of the tourist trade encourages holiday home ownership which artficially inflates house prices and provides a real problem of empty homes in our communities making villages less viable.

Now there is a positive benefit to the Cornish economy many businesses and bed and breakfast owners have grown very rich from the tourist trade. Of this there is no doubt and all power to them. But the fact remains that the burden of supporting the tourist trade and the infrastructure it demands falls on everyone, not just the minority who earn a living from tourism. Let's not forget that people love coming to Cornwall and wouldn't begrudge or even notice a small increase in their bills.


I have some doubts as to how a tourist tax would be introduced and quite how it would work. A pound per person per night sounds simple enough but enforcement of this would be complicated. Would every campsite/ hotel/ bed and breakfast/ holiday cottage have to be registered? how would this system be monitored? As an alternative I believe a much simpler system would be to proportonally raise the rates of tourism businesses. With larger businesses such as large hotels and camp sites paying more than smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts. I believe this would have the same result as a pound tourist tax but would be much simpler and would be more progressive and fairer on smaller businesses. It also would be administratively much simpler.

Let's put this one to bed

By the by Tom Flanagan also explained that Cornwall Council could eliminate the council tax discount for second home owners, my only comment, are we still having this conversation? everyone should pay the same council tax.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Does Cornwall Council have too many councillors?

The issue of the size of Cornwall Council and the number of councillors has reared it's head again. The argument kicking around is that we need less councillors and I completely and wholeheartedly disagree with this view. Below are some of my ideas on the subject and a frank and brutal undermining of the preposterous arguments put forward.

As a background and for those not in the know, Cornwall recently had a major reorganisation of local government, the Labour government and the Liberal Democrat administration decided to streamline Cornwall's administration into one simple unitary council. Hitherto Cornwall had six district councils based roughly on the ancient hundreds, west to east; Penwith, Kerrier, Carrick, Restormel, North Cornwall and Caradon and above this Cornwall County Council. These were all amalgamated into a new unitary authority simply called Cornwall Council.

The areas of the former six district councils with Penwith highlighted

(As a side note the reorganisation was supposed to save money, but alas every morning I awake waiting for a council tax rebate to hit the doormat but none arrives)

The new administration is composed of 123 councillors and is one of the largest unitary authorities in the UK, this replaced the old system whereby the county council had 82 seats and the districts combined had 249 councillors. So Cornwall lost a great deal of democratic representation with the move to unitary. Nonetheless there has been calls to further reduce the number of councillors. In an article in the Western Morning News (Councillors call to shrink size of Cornwall Council after spending investigation)

Whilst leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jeremy Rowe offers:
"Is the council bloated? I think so. We have 123 members, with a small cabinet which makes all the decisions. The rest of us are left on the back benches. I am not sure a comparison with Devon County Council can be made because we are a unitary authority and we have greater roles to fulfil. But at some point I think we should make a case to the Boundary Commission on the council's size."
Whilst Independent Andrew Wallis:
"Cornwall Council has to have enough members to carry out local investigations for planning issues as well as strategic work....I have seen some members turn up to meetings having not even opened the agenda papers. I think the council could be reduced to 100, but they would have to be the 100 hard-working members, not those who turn up every now and then yet still collect their £12,000."
Now I do not fundamentally disagree with any of these statements, it is indeed the case that many councillors don't turn up too often. It was very sad in particular to see the council's budget in February passed by 65 votes to 40, a majority of 15, with 18 not present (of perhaps 17 my knowledge doesn't extend to whether the chairperson votes).  But this seems to be a fundamental problem with UK democracy, anyone that has watched BBC Parliament will be more than aware of the empty seats during House of Commons votes. I would suggest that the problem here is not the number, but the self regulation of the councillors. Perhaps if they forfeited their seats by non-attendance, they might be encouraged to turn up and represent their constituents. There is nothing to suggest without such a rule being introduced that the problem would be reduced by reducing the number of councillors. That is to say if only a 100 turn up out of 123, then with a 100 we might see 80 regular faces.

Moving on to the preposterous, the article in the Western Morning News states that:
"The cash-strapped unitary authority has 123 members – twice the size of the Welsh Assembly, despite having far less power and covering a fraction of the geographic area."
Now this is true, Cornwall does have more members than the National Assembly for Wales and the Assembly does have lot greater powers than our humble council. Perhaps it is a secret only obvious to people like myself that have been fortunate enough to have lived in Wales but the assembly actually is an extra tier of government. There is in fact 22 authorities underneath the Welsh Assembly all with their own councils and councillors. The article goes on to cite Devon County Council's 62 councillors as much smaller than Cornwall Council, again neglecting the fact that there is a tier of local government beneath the Exeter based council all containing councillors. To be fair to the WMN, the BBC's Graham Smith has also made the fundamental mistake of comparing apples with pears in his blog from last year: Number Crunching. The peopl of Cornwall suffer from a smaller number of representatives and miss an entire tier of governance than vurtually anywhere on this island.

Cornwall Council's chamber

Now I know it is fashionable to bash politicians and many politicians themselves go along with this. But let's be realistic about this, Cornwall Council's £1.2 billion budget covers education, social services, fire and rescue, libraries, car parks, planning, highways, parks, leisure centers etc etc and is overseen by a mere 123 democratic representatives. Now there are a whole host of problems with Cornwall Council and how it is run, but there seems to be no coherent argument that reducing the number of councillors will fix any problems. Jeremy Rowe and Andrew Wallis all identify common problems; non-attendence, small cabinet taking all the decisons and lack of work by councillors, let us try and solve these problems.

There is a real need for reform at Cornwall Council but reducing the democratically elected members and thus the democratic accountability of the council will not solve any of these problems.If we want the council to be more accountable to the people of Cornwall then reducing the number of councillors would be a retrogade step. And if such a move were to take place there would in fact be less scrutiny of civil servants actitivites and more confused councllors trying to explain headlines such as these:
Council's £9M credit card bill to face scrutiny