Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Wavehub and looking enviously at the other Celtic Nations.

Last week I blogged and included my letter to the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation about the lamentable lack of progress with Wavehub. Since then I haven't had a reply from the department, last week I was on BBC Spotlight explaining my position and asking why Scotland had wave and tidal projects already operational creating energy jobs and growth yet here two years we have nothing yet to show for this massive investment. I should have mentioned that not only has the Scottish government led the way in delivering renewable marine project but also Northern Ireland has too and so does Brittany.

I read just now that Wales even has a major scheme in the pipeline, so the only Celtic Nation to not have devolution and control of our own energy strategy is Cornwall. It's easy to draw the conclusion, give the area concerned devolution and things get done, centralise it to London like they did here and you're left waiting. The Welsh scheme off Anglesey stands to create enough power for 10,000 homes, attracting £70 million worth of investment. Despite George Eustice's claim on Spotlight that he's been working hard lobbying for Wave Hub to not become a white elephant and pushing for regulations and permits to be overcome. The Welsh Government doesn't seem to be having this problem.

The comparisons are stark in Cornwall we had our scheme centralised to London, in Wales they control their own energy, here regulation and permits is a problem in Wales they've just had one granted. Here there seems to be a lack of investment to attract potential users, in Wales Westminster is providing £10 million of the £70 million investment. The starkest comparison of all comes when we think of the inaction over the last two years and the failure to yet see any progress and the words of the Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker on the new Welsh scheme:

"The UK, with its amazing natural resource and outstanding technical know-how is already leading the way on marine power for the rest of the world to follow, and I want to ensure we stay top of this table."

While we continue to have everything in Cornwall micro managed from London, we will be ignored like this. Cornwall far from being top of the table in renewables and many other things looks set for relegation into obscurity.

BBC article on the new Welsh scheme: £70m tidal power scheme off Anglesey wins approval
Coverage of my letter on the BBC website Cornish Wave Hub progress 'lamentable'

n.b one of the claims made by the government was the attraction of the Irish firm Ocean Energy to Wavehub, the press was ran the story over 12 months ago that they would be hooking up by the end of 2012....

The coalition comes to Cornwall Council

Well there's stranger things that have happened certainly, but bucking the trend of putting clear water between Westminster's bosom buddies has so far been the norm for the Cornish branch of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Today however they spoke as one voice, kneeling at the altar of austerity and leaving Cornwall to pray for the future of our public services, they agreed a set of job cuts and a tax freeze. The bottom line of this is that Cornwall Council will not raise the amount of council tax it demands from the people, although parish and town precepts may rise and Devon and Cornwall Police want more money so council tax will go up. As I blogged before rebel factions of the Tories and the Lib Dems took on the mantle of finding alternative budgets and I predicted the consultant and temp budget would be targeted. What I wrote less than two weeks ago:
Which brings me to consultants and temps no one really knows what they do outside of the council. A prime target no doubt, but politically hard for any of our intrepid trio. The Tories have spent a fortune on them but so did the last County Council run by the Liberal Democrats. Its a long held tradition between the two parties  They might gamble on revealing this but its gone on so long I really doubt the consultants can all be fired and whatever it is they do reallocated in time for the budget deadline in less than two weeks, without adversely effecting services. Don't get me wrong its an ongoing scandal but fixing something this endemic will take time.
 It turns out I wasn't completely right, as it turns our no one outside the council or councilors knows what these people do. After the Lib Dem budget was voted through this morning the council took a long recess, where it, well as the BBC journalist so eloquently put it on twitter:

Because nobody really knew what they had voted for, attracted more by the electoral leaflet friendly headline of no council tax rise than the effect on services. After the break the new interim CEO Paul Masters said that the 'indicative figures' were that 135 jobs will go, how many posts will end up going is unclear and even what effect they'll have on services. All we really have (ironic in this headline hunting policy) is headline figures, here on Cornwall Community News The Big Freeze is On, look at them yourselves, I don't know what cutting £855,000 from the staffing budget of Adult Care and Support will mean, nor what £723,00 on Children, Schools and Family, nor any of the rest of the £3.6 million, definite repercussions are difficult to find even when those that proposed this motion are asked. But they are very keen to note that frontline services won't be effected, quite how is frankly puzzling. The phrase omnishambles springs to mind.

My real disappointment was not only the rush to cuts jobs, but the lack of compassion in this budget and just how readily Cornwall's Conservatives and Liberal Democrats mimicked their bosses in London. Jobs cut with no real regard over how this would effect public services, let alone the lives of the people soon to be out of work. Again we see the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats together in unison shrinking the state for the sake of lower taxes. With no regard for how these policies will effect people, the economy and public services. The Lib Dems proposed a budget and got it passed with Tory support and the recent scandal of making those on council tax benefit pay more, was completely ignored.  Far from the minds of the coalition duo was the idea that these out of work, disabled and low paid workers could be saved from paying council tax in any alternative budget. The meeting later descended into a further farce when it was revealed the Lib Dems (Ann Kerridge) were not only proposing a motion to halt the council tax rise (which would have cost people in a band D property 42p per week) but also one to increase rent in social housing by the much more considerable rise of £2.32 a week. So for those of us outside of social housing 42p a week is not a price worth paying yet £2.32 if you're among the poorest in society is more than acceptable.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Is the government preparing a u turn on A30 dualling at Temple?

In the Autumn statement, George Osborne announced funding for the dualling of the A30 between Temple and Carblake. This was created by much fanfare, previous requests to get the work done have all been denied by central government. See here for the Department of Transport's summary of previous appeals to dual the remainder of the A30 including this small section.

At the time the Liberal Democrats announced their chancellor's generousity as a triumph:

"The Coalition Government today announced that they will be providing the funding to upgrade the A30 between Temple and Higher Carblake to dual carriageway." St Ives Liberal Democrats

Now however the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP (uncharacteristically shifting their attention away from Newquay enterprise zone/ Aerohub) is asking for help to lobby the government for funding. A30 Temple Improvements we need your help:

"The government has only given provisional approval subject to a business case and a strict timetable for delivery - without the economic evidence it could be all off!"
Do so here if you wish

Apparently previous economic cases for the upgrades are no longer worth considering. The international infrastructure consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff have been employed to survey the people and businesses of Cornwall. That American company now owned by Balfour Beatty have set up a (free) Survey Monkey survey for people to have their say. I'm at a loss for the justification of using consultants for such a task and question whether an upgrade of less than 3 miles of trunk road really justifies the expense such a contract incurs. I think the government should come clean and commit to funding the improvements. People want honesty and openness from elected officials and authorities. If this consultation and surveying period is simply to delay  the process of starting works or to kick this scheme into the long grass then they should admit this. 

Sunday, 17 February 2013

My email to Vince Cable pleading that his department take action over Wave Hub. Copied to Andrew George and George Eustice.

Dear sirs,

I am writing to you to plead for action over Wave Hub and to question why it has taken so long for anything to actually happen with the project. Cornwall has been at the forefront of industrial development over the centuries and we take pride in our excellence in engineering and innovation. As such the Wavehub project off the coast of Hayle was widely welcomed here in West Cornwall. In the past we were at the cutting edge of the last industrial revolution and everyone welcomed the idea we'd be again at the cutting energy of another revolution this time in renewable energy. However unlike Cornwall in the industrial revolution, Wavehub has stalled. 

Over a year ago (22/12/2011) the ownership and management of Wavehub was centralised to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The press releases and headlines proudly proclaimed that the 'Future of Wavehub was Secured'. Considering Wavehub itself was ready and awaiting users over a year before that, many people in Cornwall are questioning what exactly is the future of Wave Hub, what exactly have we secured? If you're unaware of what Wavehub exactly is, it is a pioneering test project for wave and tidal energy projects to trial new technologies. Elsewhere wave and tidal energy is already being harnessed, technologies have moved from the developmental stage to the operational stage. With this in mind it is lamentable that the Wavehub project has seen little actual progress in finding users. 

I do welcome some progress with the Irish firm Ocean Energy Limited engaging with the project later this year. It is good news, but even when they are using Wavehub they will only use one of the four berths and only 1 megawatt of the 20 megawatt potential. I urge that there is some concerted action to utilitise the potential of this multi-million pound technology, not only for the sake of itself but also for the local area. People were struggling to get decent jobs here before the economic downturn and the onset of austerity, now it is worse. With this in mind it is disappointing that this huge investment has not yielded any substantial amount of long term jobs.  Finding users for Wavehub would provide jobs for people in West Cornwall and it would also provide a great example of how Cornwall is at the forefront of green energy, provide optimism for both this growing sector and the Cornish economy generally. 

So I ask of you, can you provide me (and the people of Cornwall) an update on progress with this project? 

Can you provide justification that having the management of Wave Hub centralised in London, is to the benefit of the project and the taxpayer?

Whether the department has considered grants or funding to assist other users getting hooked up to Wavehub?

Yours faithfully,

Robert Simmons

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Lib Dem and Tory alternative budgets

The ruling administration at Cornwall Council has outlined their budget. As a response to yet more cuts from central government their response is to both raise council tax and cut services. There's less money so they're spending less and asking for more, its a terrible situation from my recollection the recession didn't start from Cornish schools overspending, or Cormac fixing too many potholes or Cornwall having too many libraries. But alas the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition sees funding the Royal Family, Trident replacement, a high speed railway to better connect the capital and shielding Whitehall budgets as the important things to fund. Local government here as elsewhere has had drastic cuts local government is at the forefront of recession. It may have been bailing out the banks that caused the government's financial woes but rest assured your local social workers, fire fighters, teachers, road cleaners, librarians etc are bearing the brunt. This is the reason Mebyon Kernow has called for those Conservative and Liberal Democrat councilors in protest as Dick Cole explained on his blog:

"Coalition cuts to local government are disproportionate and are undermining the ability of councils to provide public services. It is also shameful that the cuts, such as the localisation of council tax benefit, are increasingly likely to fall on the less-well-off.

But if they are serious stopping these truly damaging cuts, Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors should send a strong message to the Coalition by resigning from their respective parties." link here

Now rather than resign, the local branch of the Conservatives and simultaneously the local branch of the Lib Dems in the form of Fiona Ferguson, Mike Eathorne Gibbons for the Cons and Alex Folkes for the Dems have pledged seperately to look at the figures and find alternative budgets. Ambitious people as they are and loyal to their parties they're keen to make the funding cuts from Westminster look more reasonable and set themselves the challenge of freezing council tax (rather than the 1.97% rise) and protecting services.

I watch with interest and if they can achieve this feat well done to them. However I'm sceptical and I think they have set the bar too high. Notwithstanding finding a gold mine or finding a forest of money trees on council land. Any alternatives are going to hurt, there's a chance savings might be made and the present Tory-Indy coalition has been negiligent in finding savings, a eventuality I imagine  Alex Folkes is banking on, for the Tories to reveal this would smack of incompetence and that will not be good at the ballot box in May for the Tories and I doubt they're foolish enough to not resist this coming out.

More likely is cuts to services, i could well imagine Fiona suggesting that  the beach cleaning budget be slashed or killed completely. This will result in dirty beaches and ultimately Cornwall will lose our few blue flag beaches. The capital budget may well be raided or indeed the reserves both attractive options, no spending on infastructure may well be acceptable to some as might spending the rainy day money. Although neither is a long term solution, when more cuts come and they will what next year and the years after, what then? 

Besides which Cornwall's infastructure needs investement for growth. And rainy day money is good for when it rains and ironically it may well be rain that causes the council to spend it. We've seen bad floods over the last few years, if bridges or roads collapse this is the very fund that will pay to replace these.

Other suggestions include one made by Labour's Jude Robinson of closing rural schools and investing instead in urban ones. I don't think that needs comment or rebuttal its an awful idea. There might be suggestions to close libraries, schools, fire stations, council offices but unless Fiona, Mike or Alex has forgotten about the elections in May I doubt they'll have closing services as front page on election leaflets.

Which brings me to consultants and temps no one really knows what they do outside of the council. A prime target no doubt but politically hard for any of our intrepid trio. The Tories have spent a fortune on them but so did the last County Council run by the Liberal Democrats. Its a long held tradition between the two parties  They might gamble on revealing this but its gone on so long I really doubt the consultants can all be fired and whatever it is they do reallocated in time for the budget deadline in less than two weeks, without adversely effecting services. Don't get me wrong its an ongoing scandal but fixing something this endemic will take time.

I watch with great interest and I wish them all well in their quest but I sincerely doubt the cuts to Cornwall Council services can be halted at the same time as council tax is frozen. And I find myself pondering why didn't these three identify savings in last years budget or the year before? Might we be in a better situation now? Might I suggest an election every year so we see councilors expending the energy on the budget year in year out rather than savingheir efforts for when the ballot box looms so large.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The scandal of the second home water subsidy

Credit to the Western Morning News and their journalist Phil Godwin on uncovering the fact that the water rebate will also apply to second homes. As a further kick in the teeth to ordinary people the rebate will not apply to small businesses where owners live in the property of business. The story is in todays WMN and the preview here online.

I'm staggered frankly that this is happening. We were told the water rebate was to help one of the poorest parts of the UK pay the highest water rates in the UK. Whether this situation has come about by poor legislation, scrutiny and forethought which is likely or another policy for the rich and big business (like the 50p tax rate cut and corporation tax falling) is unclear. What is patently clear is that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat flagship policy here will exasperate existing problems for small business owners and provide  subsidy for second (and third etc) home owners. I await eagerly the opinion of Cornwall's MPs and whether they feel they should've scrutinised the detail of this legislation or perhaps it'll be revealed that they're happy about this.

It appears that the policy has crudely identified ordinary houses worthy of the rebate and businesses unworthy. This ignores the fact there are thousands of small businesses in Cornwall and many of these are dwellings for the owners too. Shops, post offices, pubs, workshops etc. I find it hard to believe that neither coalition partner is aware of this fact. Aware of the fact that small business owners are getting squeezed already in this flat lining economy and deserve a little help as much as the rest of us. For years both Tories and Lib Dems have courted small business owners and tried to paint themselves as on their side. Yet like students and other groups in soceity they're left wondering where these election promises went.

In a previous blog I questioned whether such a profit intensive business should protect profits and have the public purse raided to make bills fairer. Now I despair that second home owners will also get subsidised water rates and as the WMN points out those most unused properties may well even now pay no rates at all.  There are 13,458 holiday homes in Cornwall when public services are being cut left and centre, you have to wonder what's being sacrificed, what funding is being raided to pay the £673,000 water rebate to Cornwall's part time residents.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Seabed mining off the North Cornish coast, why not a trial

I've read with interest plans revealed that the sea bad off Cornwall could be mined for minerals. On the one hand it promises jobs, investement and crucially Cornwall exporting and bringing money in. On the other there are widespread concerns that dredging style activity could have an adverse effect on wildlife, the fishing industry and beachgoers.

This is a great dilemma Cornwall shouldn't spurn economic development and a possibly emerging industry but neither should it sacrifice the environment to do so. Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Surfers Against Sewage are right to be cautious, sediment from centuries of mining churned up uncontrollably could have a long detrimental effect. To be fair the company behind the plan Marine Minerals ltd claim that their methods don't risk churning up the seabed and wouldn't pose the risks feared. (see this This is Cornwall article for example). This is claim and counter claim and its hard to know personally who is nearer to the mark. So why can't we have a limited trial, closely monitored in conjunction with concerned groups. Then if environmental concerns are well founded we can stop it and conversely if tin can be profitably extracted cleanly and efficently it can carry on.

There's a wider point here, that's weighing up environmental concerns against economic ones. We've seen this in Falmouth over the harbour issue and potential dredging there. Who knows perhaps more dredging elsewhere to clear waterways or mine minerals will come up in the future. It concerns me that there's a lot at stake either way but yet there doesn't seem to be a policy from Cornwall Council or central government. To my mind its the job of policy making bodies to set regulations and to weigh up competeing concerns and to ensure safeguards for our environment. It's a debate people in Cornwall are having the Cornish media has been very good at provoking this debate and giving concerned parties and companies a chance to give their side of the story. It's time this debate was had by those who can set the rules and can monitor and regulate activites and I sincerely hope they put the people of Cornwall and what we want at the forefront of this process.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

South West Water, should the supply of water be such a profit intensive business.

Although it must be welcomed that water bills in Cornwall will drop. It must be welcomed that the coalition government has recognised the problem of people here paying much much more than everywhere else in the UK. It also must be welcomed that South West Water are announcing investement in sewerage works, flood defences and the water system. But lets be realistic we're getting ripped off still and the government needed to do more than divert taxpayers money to subsidising not only bills but the parent group Pennon's profits.

Water should be a human right, we can't live without fresh clean water and there are obvious health benefits to a modern sewerage system. Its reprehensible that we still regularly have raw sewage entering the sea from overflow drains during storms and heavy rain. I don't believe water should be a profit making venture. I'm no fan of privatisation I don't think public services and utilities should have shareholders and investors interests as a motivating factor in operation. Public services should be run in the public interest, any savings that can be made should be to the benefit of the tax payer.

This however is not the system we have with water. Its a very profitable enterprise the main concern of the Pennon group is South West Water, the groups is in the FTSE 250 in other words its in the top tied of UK companies. As a press release from Pennon revealed late last year:

"South West Water is continuing its strong operational performance against the 2010/15 regulatory contract with further advances in operating efficiency and customer service. Rigorous cost control, efficiency delivery and stable interest costs are expected to deliver profit before tax for the half year for South West Water up 10% to more than £83m.

We expect to report Pennon Group profit before tax for the half year up over 3% to £111m and to announce an interim dividend up 6.6% to 8.76p per share."

It's a staggering amount of money, although it's obviously good value for the company and it's investors, we have to ask is it good value for the public purse is it good value for users? It's lamentable that the last Tory government sold off the water boards and lamentable that this one's only solution is to use more public money to further subsdise operating profits. Surely rather than paying more than average on bills and some of our tax paying as well the government should have looked to the company itself to alleviate water bills?

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Will Cornwall Council keep Lavery's hyperdevelopment agenda

For a start this isn't a blog outlining some conspiracy theory over the concreteing of Cornwall. The push for more and more house house building might be viewed as a conspiracy I suppose but its based on a seemingly rational argument that increasing the population of Cornwall is for our own good and would protect us from austerity. I think actually this logic is deeply flawed and naive but the argument is not without merit.

At the Councilor fair the other week Kevin Lavery gave his view of the council and what he saw as the future. I found this approach disappointing, I don't believe its the job of civil servants to espouse visions of the future. I firmly believe that politicians need to do this and that long term strategy needs to be democratically based. In simple terms explained to the electorate and decided by them at the ballot box. At the event it was very useful to hear various councillors explain what they do and the challenges they face as elected representatives. At no time were councilors given the opportunity to express their vision of Cornwall and our governance through Cornwall Council. It's obvious to me that politicians play second fiddle to bureacrats in developing long term strategies. Whether this is due to structural weaknesses in the role of councillors or a symptom of the weakness and division in the ruling Conservative and Independent  group it needs to change.

The future for local government here as elsewhere is bleak. Harried by central government with cuts in funding and then demonised if raising tax is proposed. The agenda is set by central government and that agenda is cuts to services, as Andrew Long put it cuts that go past the fat and cut into the muscle. In fact Kevin Lavery even used that quote in his speech when he explained that further cuts in the future would mean Cornwall Council would have had a 50% cut in funding. He also explained that this will cut front line services and hard, administrative savings were being made but as they only form 5% of the budget it wouldn't make a lot of difference.

So that brings me to Kevin's grand idea, that hyperdevelopment the rapid building of housing on greenfield site would solve this problem. In short that more people living here means more council tax. This would mean less reliance on Westminster for funding, now that's all well and good. More houses equals more council tax which equals more money for the council thats a fact.

Logical in its own terms, however it doesn't address the fact that Cornwall Council isn't the be all and end all of the public sector in Cornwall. Central government still controls the NHS and trunk roads to name but two things. Sure we pay for them through income tax, VAT, corporation tax etc etc but their funding is controlled by Westminster and Whitehall. So take the A30 for example campaigners fought for decades to get more sections dualled the infamous Goss Moor section only happened when Europe stepped in and funded a project that fuel duty and road tax receipts ought to have paid for many times over. Take Treliske Hospital for example, 4,000 jobs to be lost a huge percentage from the Cornish NHS which has been consistently underfunded for years. How will their existing funding problems be solved by an exponential increase in the population of Cornwall? How ever will they cope with all that extra traffic and patients? More people will increase funding for local government that's a fact, like it or not, but this is the problem with these decisions being made by someone solely responsible for the council. Politicians need to be making these decisions and they need to think long and hard about the wider issues of funding and infastructure across all of Cornwall not just navel gazing at Cornwall Council's problems. There are no silver bullets to solve Cornwall's problems and I would argue that ensuring locally affordable housing ought to be a priority and building tens of thousands of houses with little regard for this problem will be a mistake. This should be the focus and Cornwall's needs should be at the forefront of the Core Strategy rather than the council's funding. Which is a seperate issue that needs addressing on its own. The real question is how will councilors vote on the Core Strategy and will Lavery's bright idea be his legacy in Lys Kernow?