Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The future home of Penzance Town Council

The main subject of the last full town council meeting was spent deliberating the options for the siting of the town council's office. Cornwall Council have offered PZTC space in St John's Hall when it is refurbished.  I was wondering what people thought to this? As there will be another meeting hopefully with more information soon, it would be good to get input now.

The debate raged (no literally raged), over three options put to the council. Take up the offer and be a small part of the building.  Maintain the status quo and stay in the same building (rented from Cornwall Council). Alternatively look to purchase the present offices. There are various pros and cons presented to the council, quite fairly and impartially by the town clerk it must be added.

The pros of moving across the road to John's are that local government would then be centralised in one place. The town council would effectively be placed in the nearest thing Penzance has to a town hall. The town council would join the One Stop Shop, the library and the remaining CC staff in Penzance. This was seen as a downside also, that we would get confused with CC, there is already considerable confusion between the function and responsibility of PZTC and CC. They are seperate bodies, not beholden to each other in constitution. There is a real danger that there would seem to be an incorporation of PZTC into CC and further reinforce the perception that both bodies do the same thing.

Principles aside,  there are also practical downsides. The Town Council would lack a dedicated entrance and would effectively be tucked away deep in the midsts of Cornwall Council's building. There would be limited space in the building and the present staff of the town council would only just fit. This would mean that no new members of staff could be taken on without rehoming the office again. With the prospect of expansion of our role and responsibility this could be short sighted. Besides this, there is a corporate duty for councilors over the council's staff, we have a duty of care. It does concern me that new office space would lack dedicated tiolet and kitchen facilities, which they currently have. So it would be a step backward for staff and visitors although there would of course be these facilities somewhere else in the building.

This alone is a massive debate, muddled further by the lack of detailed plans as to the space offered and what rent would be charged. Combined with the very real fear that planning applications are due to be submitted soon, a decision was needed. So to take the offer or not was a complicated argument with lots of reasons to agree or not.

Added to this was other option(s); to reject CC's offer and stay in the current premises or to seek to purchase that site from CC. Fear not this would be purchased with a loan rather than from council tax.  The council can borrow with extremely good interest rates and according to the calculations presented to the meeting would end up paying less than the current rent and gaining a permanent asset. For me this is an entirely seperate issue and I'm not sure how helpful to the decision making process it was, adding this in. The debate about taking up Cornwall Council's offer or not should have been a standalone meeting.  However there are rumours circulating around town that Cornwall Council is in talks to sell the present Town Council offices.  PZTC is not master of its own destiny in this. Perhaps that's why some cllrs believe we should buy our own building and start to be.

At the moment I do think we should consider seriously purchasing our own building and shouldn't shy away from taking such bold steps. I await the upcoming special meeting with more details of CC's offer, as it's taking place I'll have to consider it on its merits.  After all if it's a great office for free or very cheap, surely it's a no brainer.

Thoughts and comments as ever welcome by email, twitter or below. Particularly whether one idea is better than another or whether people really care about such things...

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Western Greyhound bus services pull out of Penwith

Earlier today I had a conversation with someone concerned about rural bus services in Penwith. Rumours were abounding that as a result of Cornwall Council's cuts bus routes in West Penwith would be severely effected. Now the story has broken and Western Greyhound are due to pull out of Penwith and are closing their Penzance depot. (See here for statements from Cornwall Council and Western Greyhound on the ITV website). It remains to be seen what Cornwall Council will do to make up for this abandonment of the west by the bus company. Whether they will continue the short sighted policy of not funding bus routes, which must have played a big part in Western Greyhound's decision.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Some thoughts on local government, Penzance Town Council and next years budget

Five months ago! going into the elections I prepared a great deal, I spent a good amount of time preparing how I would canvass, what I would say to electors and what I wanted to do in office. I thought at the time that I had a good grasp of what local government does and the roles, responsibilities and indeed limitations of being a councilor. I had the benefit of being friendly with a number of town councilors and Cornwall councilors some Mebyon Kernow and some not. Despite this, becoming a councilor, attending meetings, the phone calls, chats, emails, not to mention meetings has been an eye opener.

One of the things that concerned me about Penzance Town council was that not a lot of people knows what it does and I am sure this is true of all local government not peculiar to here. It's something I'd like to change (or more modestly play a part in changing on this blog.) There are misconceptions, about what the council can do and can't do and which decisions stem from here. I've recently been reading the National Association of Local Council's Good Councillor Guide (here's the pdf link if you're so inclined). It provides a useful definition of the duties of 'first tier authorities' (Town and parish councils):

Depending on your viewpoint a local council does not have to do a great deal or has a lot of flexibility to be creative. In other words a council is free to set up its own priorities. There a lot of misconceptions about what Penzance Town Council and other first tier authorities do. Unfortunately lots of things are things people would like to see change in the town, but are provided or decided by other bodies. The high cost of parking, the high cost of business rates are two prime examples, but not in the remit of PZTC. Although it must be noted that the cheapest car park in Penzance is the town council's with a rate of £1.90 per day (see here for that car park off Alverton road). 

I digress there are lots of important things that happen in the town, that are outside the jurisdiction of the town council. Highways, waste collections and litter picking, to name but three, important things not decided by the town council. Despite the rhetoric of 'localism' and the reforms of local government, first tier authorities lack the power, influence and crucially budgets to heavily influence their areas. So I think in a sense what I have learnt about being a Penzance town councilor is that there is a lot of flexibility for the council to be creative and to provide services. Obviously within the limits of a relatively small budget and not a great deal of power and influence.

At the moment the council is currently going into the budget setting stage and debates are starting and arguments are being formed, in the coming months it will be decided what the council spends money on next year, what services we choose to provide and to what level,  what things perhaps might be cut or reduced etc etc. Over arching this the massive variables over what Cornwall Council will pull out of funding as they beat their steady retreat eastwards and what we as a council will choose -and can afford- to take over. 

At the moment the town council operates under the budget of the last council and within the constraints of that budget and its priorities. It remains to be seen what the new council wants as its priorities. In May when I was elected there were also 7 other new councilors elected, leaving 12 from the last administration. In terms of composition there are 2 Mebyon Kernow, 2 Green, 2 Labour, 2 Liberal Democrat, 2 Future for Penzance and the remaining 10 Independent (well officially). There is no clear majority group, a lot of new councilors, so will there be consensus? Underpinning this is the precept, currently the town council gets about 5% of a resident's council tax bill. The bottom line is and perhaps ones of the most important decisions is do we raise our income through council tax? or do we freeze it? How much will providing good quality services take precedence over political point scoring. 

I appreciate this blogpost rambles a lot, so credit for sticking with it, or scrolling through this far ; ). The point I was trying to make is that there is a lot Penzance Town Council can't do, we can't unfortunately reduce parking rates or the town centre's business rates there are a lot of constraints. Looking on the positive side there is a a lot of room to be flexible, this means the council can fund all sorts of things. But it also means these things can be cut at the whim of councilors. What I am not clear at the moment is what will happen in the future but I will keep this blog posted with what occours and why I voted one way or another. To outline my position, I do think we should provide public services, subsidised by the tax payer for the good of the area. I don't think we should force austerity on to the council for the sake of it. I anticipate I will be at loggerheads with some other councilors for holding these views... 

Any thoughts or comments on the town council, the budget and what the town council spends money on, don't hesitate to get into contact with me, all details here

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Government gives the go ahead to Penzance and St Mary's harbour.

The first steps to securing the maritime link with the Isles of Scilly look to be underway. The governments press release ( is triumphant in it's tone, but sadly lacking in any detail. The Penzance side only has dredging named,  the suspicious part of my mind wonders why Cornwall Council's plan finalised with Penzance Town Council is not named. Neither is rock armour... Perhaps parts of the plan will be left out? Time will tell. It does appear works on St Mary's harbour will finally go ahead, thankfully.

The town needs this to be the first step in the regeneration of our harbour. Dredging and traffic improvements (if they are included) is a start to the kind of harbour and Scilly sea link we deserve. There needs to be better facilities for cargo and passengers to name but a few things.  There needs to be a better deal for harbour users. That's certainly my view and that of the town council and thankfully of Cornwall Council cabinet member Bert Biscoe, from this small start announced today we must be pleased and look to it as the first step in a brighter future.