Friday, 31 May 2013

Penzance and Cornwall Council, trying times ahead

I blogged the other day about the positivity in Penzance to move forward. Unfortunately ideas and good will don't make up for the challenges coming from Cornwall Council. Specifically austerity and cuts, but also the centralisation of local government and decision making. Unfortunately the dominant theme of this has been to axe jobs in the periphery and ditch services that don't make money for short term gain.
The petition to "save the trawler" is making slow progress but I suppose compares favourably with other e petitions on the Council website, see that and sign it here. Unfortunately, the removal of the piece has started, those of you that know Alexandra play park can see from the picture that the climbing net has already been taken away. It's tempting to blame the new administration or the old one for this but it does seem to have been decided during the election and coalition talks. It would seem this has been decided by officers.
Also in this period Cornwall Council have seen fit to condemn the Old Dairy at the bottom of Belgravia street and sell it off. It would seem everything in Penzance is being sold for profit and services run down. the Old Dairy at th moment houses a tea room and gallery where art and jewellery some created by people with learning disabilities is displayed. More details here. We'll lose this facility in the heart of town as it's sold. With a vague commitment the proceeds will be invested in the John Daniel centre in Heamoor. Yet again it would seem the most vulnerable and the town of Penzance is first for cuts. Surely giving people things to do like this we should be promoting?
To end on a higher note, it's most welcome to see that Penzance Town Council is going to give Pop Up Penzance a small grant to get started. Good to see someone investing in PZ.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The ideas and energy of a town: looking to Penzance's future

Taken from Penzance Town Council website
There are many challenges ahead for Penzance in terms of the town and local government. In some sense there is every reason to be optimistic there is a great sense of drive and new blood on the town council and new groups and movements emerging. Here's my thoughts.

At my first Committee meeting, that is General Purposes (GP) I was elected as vice chair. The town council has 4 standing committees GP, Planning, Finance and Property and Penlee House and Park. All councilors sit on 2 committees, (I sit on GP and the Penlee committee) Basically GP, deals with everything not covered by the other committees, and as a new councilor, I have a lot to learn about what is involved. But this is true of all of the new councilors, I think we all share a drive and enthusiasm to get stuck in and all of the committees have newly elected councilors as vice chairs. Exciting times and I promise to blog and try to explain to people what I do on the council and what the council actually does. I apologise for being one of those politicians that blogs a lot in the run up to the election and neglects to do so afterward. So there's drive and fresh ideas in the town council and I am confident guided properly by the old hands we can make a formidable force over the next 4 years.

Unfortunately I was unwell and did not make the Postcard to Penzance event at The Exchange. But I have spoken to quite a few people that were there. There are lots of great ideas for the town and how we shape it's future. It is very encouraging to see others coming forward proactively with ideas for the town, that consider the whole not just the economy and development. In addition I've noticed a new group 'Pop Up Penzance' who are working to fill empty shops, I'm interested to see how this works out (their facebook page and twitter). In addition we have a Town Team and perhaps a Business Improvement District BID on the horizon too. There's clearly no shortage of people willing to work to improve and shape the town. My only real fear is that people come together when necessary and don't all pull in different directions and waste time working against each other or on similar plans in tandem but oblivious to each others efforts. Communication is key!

The baskets today
Today I went up to see the Penzance Community Flora Group PCFG and to see the flowers and baskets ready to be spread around the town. It's a good example of people coming together and a small example of how Cornwall Council's cuts are hitting Penzance. Now I know that flower beds and baskets aren't the worst thing to happen in the name of austerity or in this town but anyway. In 2011 CC decided to cut the budget for the gardeners and flowers for Penzance. The PCFG was formed to fill the gap. Relying on the generosity of a number of businesses and organisations (I'd name them but I fear I might forget some...) and staffed by volunteers. They plant and propagate the baskets that hang far and around the town, more details on their website here. It's a great example of how people can come together and with hard work and dedication they can make a difference in the town. Exciting times in the town!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Centralist austerity focussed fire service review finds cuts and centralisation as a solution

The government has published the report by Sir Ken Knight on the future of the fire service. Much vaunted as independent, it must be borne in mind that this is a thin veil, the man was chief government adviser and the terms of the review clearly pointed by the coalition to centralise services and make cuts. Bearing all the hallmarks of the review and subsequent cuts to the Coastguard service and the number of operational stations. I wouldn't doubt the credibility of Sir Ken Knight he no doubt has forgotten more about the fire and rescue service than I will ever hope to know. But the basis of the review, it's terms and approach were fundamentally flawed and it is clear that the purpose of this exercise was to cut firefighters and merge services in the trademark top down re-organisation culture long prevalent in Whitehall.

Looking back to December the "Terms of reference" of the review are as follows:

To review the ways in which fire and rescue authorities may deliver further efficiencies and operational improvements without reducing the quality of front-line services to the public. The review will examine options for savings both within and beyond the current Spending Review period, including through:

  • firefighter training
  • flexible staffing and crewing arrangements
  • the use of retained firefighters
  • procurement
  • shared services
  • collaboration with emergency services and other organisations on service delivery and estates
  • sickness management
  • sharing of senior staff
  • locally led mergers and operational collaborations
  • new fire-fighting technology
  • preventative approaches
  • working with local businesses

It is clear that this is a very slanted way of conducting a review, if we were really to investigate the fire and rescue service or anything for that matter we need to start with an open mind. Shared services, sharing of senior staff, locally led mergers and operational collaborations 3 of the 12 things to investigate are intrinsically centralist. The review itself was part of the Spending Review, the idea that this is independent completely ignores the fact that austerity and centralisation not service and safety are the main drivers behind the review. Perhaps if the terms of the review were different we'd question why central government feels the need to interfere and that money could be saved by letting local fire authorities run their own affairs, localism? Perhaps we could cut costs by not having a Director of Fire, Resilience and Emergencies on £84,499 and a former Director Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser (author of this review) on £99,999 in Whitehall. The now chief adviser has a 'substantial' but unnamed 6 figure salary. Surprisingly difficult to find the budget of the CFRA.

As all top down reviews, lots of time was obviously spent looking at paperwork and finding figures to fit into preconceived ideas not a great deal talking to firefighters and the front line. In the review 10 fire authorities were visited across the whole of England out of a total of 46. As such the evidence was obviously catch all and failed to take into account conditions across the wide ranges of areas and challenges facing fire authorities. I very much doubt many actual firefighters were talked to and asked their opinions about what could be done better.

Browsing through the review, I was intrigued to see how the Fire and Rescue and Service could be changed to cope with the number of flooding incidents in Cornwall, recently a major challenge, of this there is no doubt. The document mentions floods and flooding 4 times and even cites figures that flooding incidents have decreased by 8%. Maybe true elsewhere but not everywhere is the same here I'd very much doubt Cornwall is anywhere near that trend. Here we are told that numbers of firefighters need reducing, yet some of the largest incidents faced here not even mentioned. Consider mines and cliffs the fire and rescue service deals with incidents underground and around the coast in Cornwall not mentioned in the review once.

The logic that merging authorities saves money is again trotted out. Much like Cornwall was told before unitary, the reality here in Penwith is that council tax went up as a result of this cost cutting measure and parking charges too. We have decisions made from afar with little or no regard for what people here think. Services haven't got better, savings are mythical and not based on clear evidence. We can't let this happen to Cornwall Fire and Rescue Services. Does it need to change? probably it does but let Cornwall decide itself, let the people that do this day to day have their say and free us from 'Whitehall interference' (to quote Nick Clegg).

Additionally I really hope the government doesn't use this review to centralise another public service out of Cornwall. We have an ambulance service and police force externally administered on Cornwall, with headquarters and jobs lost to the Cornish economy further undermining us and increasing the brain drain.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Petition: The Duchy and why money from Cornwall's dead should be better managed

Got caught up with the election business too much to blog about being quoted in the Guardian on the 2nd of May. Their journalist Robert Booth ran a story titled Prince Charles uses 'intestate' cash in Cornwall to fund his own charities, highlighting the charitable donations from the Duke of Cornwall's benevolent fund to some of the Duke's own charities. I've since set up a petition here As some background, the constitutional quirks of Cornwall as a Duchy mean that the Duke is the head of state effectively and lots of the rights that belong to the Crown east of the Tamar west are granted to the Prince of Wales. One of these is that if people die intestate, that is without a will then their estate is claimed by the Duchy, in England it's inherited by the Crown and diverted to the Treasury's coffers.

The process is known as Bona Vacantia "ownerless goods", but in Cornwall the money is not taken by the treasury but administered by the Duchy. I blogged a while back on this Bona Vacantia, the Duchy of Cornwall, the case of the missing money and found that lots of the money collected around half was unaccounted for. Further that the main beneficiaries of the fund were charities headed up by Prince Charles. The Guardian story ran with recent news of the fund sitting on large funds of money (£3.3 million) and controversial donations, to quote:

The biggest grant was £19,300 to Charles's charity Business in the Community, whose supporters include some of the biggest companies in Britain. Another £1,000 went to his London-based Prince's Foundation for Building Communities, which champions the prince's controversial ideas about architecture and planning.

In response to this I set up a petition here: Duchy: money collected from Cornwall's dead should stay here. I'm not completely sure I like the title my criticism of the current set up is not only is it another way of taking money out of the Cornish economy but the nature of the donations. There are many worthy causes and charities that need funding, I cited in the Guardian article foodbanks in Cornwall. My primary concern is that there is no accountability for this money and that it is used to fund the Prince's pet projects rather than genuine worthy causes. It seems to me that the money could be better managed with more accountability and openness, hopefully keeping a great deal of the money from whence it came too. This is my aim with the petition and I hope you'll sign it, please.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Mayor making and leadership in local government

Last night was the 34th annual meeting of Penzance Town Council and the mayor making ceremony. It was my first real taste of the pomp and ceremony of local government. I was pleased to see my fellow Mebyon Kernow councilor Phil Rendle to be officially re-elected as mayor of the town. I learnt a great deal about the process of local government and had ample opportunity later to have a good chat with some of the councilors and get a feel for where people are coming from and hope to achieve in the next 4 years.

I overcame my scepticism of the pomp when a good friend of mine, and former mayor of the town, Jerry Drew pointed out that this is the history of the town. The ceremonial and dramatically named "sword of justice" the maces, the key, seals and the ancient charter are mere symbols albeit extremely valuable. But they are relics of the past the continuity of this town council through the old borough council and the a demonstration of the history of this proud town. I ended up enjoying the parading, as it were, of these pieces. It impressed upon me the civic pride and the importance of tradition and history.

I also have spent some time reflecting on the nature of administration and political wrangling for power.  Here in Penzance we have a Mebyon Kernow mayor again, not because MK are the ruling group but because Cllr Rendle has done a good job so far as civic leader and chairman. As Phil said to me about this time last year after his election, he saw the role as mayor to try to reach consensus and to allow debate not to lead. As coordinator not as generalissimo.

Here on Penzance Town Council as Cornwall Council as well there is no clear consensus from the electorate, there is no mandate for one party or even a coalition of 2 parties to rule. I think Cornwall Council could do well to learn from Penzance Town Council and others to not pursue a ruling clique and cabinet but to have committees where cross party consensus and a diversity of opinion is required. Whichever 2 groups try to form a coalition on Cornwall Council (Lib Dem-Independence or Tory-Indy) they will lack the support collectively of 50% of those that voted.

The democratic thing for the groups on Cornwall Council to do would be a rainbow coalition (as proposed by the Lib Dems and MK). And/ or a leadership arrangement whereby the role is of chair to oversee and direct debate not legislate unilaterally. The great mistake of the previous administration was for a handful of councilors to make all the decisions with little input from the majority of councilors. Which directly led to the grassroots rebellion over privatisation and the former leader losing a vote of no confidence. Individuals and parties that wish to rule from a small number of decisive people with a clear direction would do well to refer back to the election results which gave no one party that mandate.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Thoughts on the election and thanks again

Sorry I haven't blogged sooner, I've had the cold from hell. Obviously as a consequence as talking to hundreds of people over the last month on the doorstep and around and about, I have picked up some germs. Taken with the stress and the strain of talking to hundreds of people, I was a bit worn out. So today is the first I have woken up without a fever and think a good walk from Mousehole to Lamorna last night in lovely weather, greatly helped me get over it and thanks to my wife for dragging me off the sofa.

As I wrote before thanks to everyone that helped and supported me link here. I'm greatly disappointed that I only achieved 91 votes in the Cornwall Council vote, but I'm not entirely surprised. Labour and the Liberal Democrats threw the kitchen sink at it and both delivered twice as many leaflets as I did. Had all kinds of shadow ministers and MPs canvassing on their behalf. Similarly UKIP had a plane flying over Penzance on the day before the election. They also benefited from 2 letters in the Cornishman on the day of the poll, I didn't think this was allowed under electoral rules, if I'd known I'd have done the same. The Conservatives pulled off a massive coup by having David Cameron splashed across the front page of the Cornishman. So I'm not entirely surprised I got drowned out in the election campaign. In four years time believe you me, Dick Cole will be on the front page of the Cornishman, pictured wing walking on a plane shouting through a loudhailer VOTE ROB SIMMONS, with everyone I know that can write filling up the letters page. I jest of course, but there's a lot of lessons for me there and there's a lot of lessons for Mebyon Kernow. We're never going to have supporters to bus from across the UK, the Cornishman won't put Dick Cole and the fact MK cares about Penzance anywhere near the paper, we won't have thousands of pounds for planes.

In four years time again we will be the only political party that won't have a chance to speak on BBC Spotlight, make no bones about it it's a fact. Whoever's the next rank outsider fancied by political pundits, will be splashed across every broadcast and newspaper, 4 years ago it was the BNP, this time UKIP, perhaps it'll be the Lib Dems in 2017. I'm not resentful, I'm not bitter but if we are to break through in politics it won't be on the back of the media it will be through our own hard work. The next four years we have to consider how we can get our message across, how we can get people talking and thinking about us, how we can achieve that within the constraints of a party not funded by multi-millionaires, corporations and tax dodgers. I look forward to this challenge.

Anyway I digress, whats done is done, hard work and however disappointing it was. I'm not waiting for the dust to settle I'm dusting myself off and looking forward to the next four years on Penzance Town Council. I am absolutely chuffed that 415 people put an x next to my name, I'm so surprised and so pleased that so many have given me this honour and this approval. I'm looking forward to working hard for this town and I hope that I can prove those 415 people right that they made the right decision by voting for me and that I'll do them proud.

Stay tuned folks....

Friday, 3 May 2013

Thanks for all the votes and support

However I do today I've really enjoyed getting out and talking to people and getting to know this area better. I've enjoyed the lovely chats and cups of tea and I'm impressed the amount of people that gave me the time of day.

Whatever the result today whether I'm elected to both Cornwall Council and Penzance Town Council or it's a not as good as I hoped and I'm on neither, I'm happy with my campaign, I certainly couldn't have worked harder or gave more. No doubt I've learnt a lot about canvassing and about myself.

Whatever happens today (counts between 12:00 and 15:00) I'm already looking forward to being back on the doorstep in 4 years time and meeting you all again. Thanks if you voted for me, thanks if you chatted with me and thanks if you read my leaflets, blogs and twitter etc.

A special thanks to the huge and surprising amount of people that have wished me luck. All those that have supported me online, shared my blog and you tube video I'm eternall grateful. Of course thanks and apologies to my family and friends whose lives have been dominated over the last few weeks and months by this.

Live updates on the Cornwall Council website here

Once again it's been a pleasure and thank you, see you again round folks. Stay tuned on this blog, this isn't an election gimmick this is a year round thing.