Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Scottish Independence debate and how campaigns beat political parties on social media

Just now I cam across a staggering statistic from Yes Scotland, they over 100,000 'likes' on their facebook page. Understandably they are quite happy about this, as this photo lifted from the page demonstrates. 

Congratulations to them this is a huge feat, as they themselves are keen to note "We have now reached 100,000 likes on Facebook. Thank you very much for engaging in discussion with us - whether you agree with Yes Scotland or not." So likes on facebook and followers on twitter is not a completely accurate barometer of support, you may 'like' but that might be to actually disagree, as they concede. Although I dare say the fact that the rival Better Together campaign's facebook following of 91,000 is a lower is encouraging for the pro independence movement. On twitter the split is 14,544 to Better Together and 24,380 to Yes Scotland. Again the Yes campaign has a greater following and reach, again cause for concern for unionists. It's a well talked about fact that social media is becoming bigger in politics and not just for parties, for campaigns and campaigning too.

There is an interesting power struggle going on at the moment (or should I say to the fore as it is perennial) between the Unions and the Labour party and on the other hand Government's controversial 'gagging bill' which is opposed by all sorts of charities, campaigning groups, trade unions. Politicians jealously guarding their influence and prominence in political discourse against outside rivals. Years and years ago, there was a lot of debate about the role of the state in international politics and whether governments would in a sense be second place actors behind the United Nations, the EU, multinationals, religions and that globalisation rendered states impotent.  There is the same dynamic in domestic politics going on and now and definitely coming to the fore, political parties are losing influence to the vast myriad of campaigning groups. I'd argue much like the role of the state in international politics, parties can govern, legislate and do things groups can not, in much the same way the US can dominate politics in a way companies, the UN or EU never can. But it is nonetheless of concern and questions the democratic legitimacy of the traditional political parties and questions how politicians engage with the public. 

Consider for example the fact Yes Scotland has 100,000 facebook likes, many doubt the 'independence' of the campaign that it's a SNP front, which stands in stark contrast to the 28,595 likes of The SNP itself. We might assess the counter claim that Better Together is a Labour front, but it's hard to make a direct facebook comparison, the UK Labour party (there isn't a seperate Scottish Labour page I could find) has 152,956 likes which doesn't compare favourably with Better Together's 91,000. If social media is anything to go by there isn't a direct link between online support and yes voters being SNP and no voters being Labour. (I know a slightly obvious point.) But if we flit back to the point about campaigns outstripping parties, it is a significant gulf.

The blog UK General Election 2015 does lots of interesting analysis of polling and voting intentions, if you like that kind of thing well worth a look. They also do a monthly round up of Political Cyber Warriors, it's worth looking at their screenshots of facebook and twitter followings and making some comparisons:

Consider Yes Scotland's 100k facebook likes, more than the Liberal Democrats, twice as many as UKIP as well as 3 times that of The SNP. But also consider Amnesty International UK who have 116k on facebook and 89k on twitter38 Degrees who have 77k and 20k on twitterGreenpeace UK who have 141k and 73k on twitter, these are all by definition political organisations. Even more interesting is when you consider the stats facebook give, the Conservatives boast 160k likes but yet 2,761 are 'talking about this' Labour fares slightly better with 153k likes and 12,964 'talking about this', whereas Yes Scotland have 100k likes and 11,204 'talking about this', Amnesty have less likes than both but 27,296 'talking about this' (the Lib Dems have 91K likes and 1,209 'talking about this') So it would seem, not only are smaller organisations like charities and campaigning groups better at attracting social media followings and in terms of quantity holding their own but they are also winning the quality battle and engaging more people too. 

The real question for politicians and political parties is why are people more inclined to join campaigning groups? and engage with them on social media? Why are people more inclined to talk about Amnesty International than the parties that govern us? Why do political parties that dominate political news, operate with multi-million pounds budgets, and have hundreds of paid full time staff, as well as MPs and councilors, fail to attract as much social media support? People are obviously interested in politics, so what are political parties doing wrong? It's something that needs to be looked at, theories or ideas please share them below.

To return to the original point, I don't know what the Yes Scotland campaign is doing right, but to have that many people engaged on social media and to be outstripping parties and indeed other campaigns that are so well established is an impressive feat. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Penzance Town Council votes to be a Living Wage employer

Great news, a while back I suggested to the town clerk that the town council that we become a Living Wage employer. This came to committee last week and was thankfully voted through, with only one opposing which is fantastic. Although it was my idea, I can't take too much credit as I don't sit on the Finance and Property Committee, so I wasn't there to speak on behalf of the recommendation nor to vote on it. Thanks are due therefore to the town clerk and the other office staff for drawing up the proposal and the committee members for voting it through.

The wording of the recommendation was as follows: "that the principle of the Penzance Town Council being a Living Wage Employer is supported and that we work with the Living Wage Foundation in achieving Accreditation." More on what the Living Wage is from the Foundations website here.

I think this is an important step in recognising that decent wage is the right thing to do. For the town council the implications are (again to quote from the report): "There are currently 3 part-time staff whose pay is below the Living Wage although it must be noted that their pay is considerably above the minimum wage. The financial implications, therefore are minimal and will be reported as part of the budget setting if supported." So there's not a great cost to the ratepayer and it doesn't mean slashing other services.

As it's only a few members of staff, the real significance is symbolic (although for those 3, it's hopefully a great help) rather than a sea change in the way the council treats it's employees. I hope as more and more employers take up the Living Wage that others follow suit and that this government notices that lots of people and organisations don't think that the minimum wage is adequate. I know lots of smaller businesses may find it hard to stump up for the Living Wage for their employees, but it should also be considered the Living Wage Foundation's research of the benefits to employers:

I always supported and indeed pushed for the inclusion of the Living Wage in the Mebyon Kernow manifesto. It's something I greatly believe in, I think pay should be fair and I hope for a day when headlines in papers about civil servants pay, are about a fair deal for the poorest paid not how senior staff are earning astronomical sums.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

2150 houses for Penzance in the next 20 years

Following on from my earlier post and ny confusion to the numbers Labour's Tim Dwelly and Cornelieus Olivier wanted. I've had some clarification from Tim.  Also, the total for the Community Network Area was voted on today at committee, so what they wanted and what we'll get is a step closer.

The total for the West Penwith CNA will be 3850 houses over the next 20 years up from 2500 planned previously. The total for the Penzance are will be 2150 up from the 1400 previous figure. The 350 Tim Dwelly had written on his fb page is the difference between what they wanted (2500) for PZ and what they got (2150).

So to work it out in housebuilds a year, as per the Labour fashion, we will get on average 107 houses built. So Tim's figure was how many on top of that an extra 350 would be.

I recognise the need for housing but I do fear these figures are too high. The argument that affordable housing will come with mass house building. Is not one I think proves itself.  Look around Cornwall and places with much higher rates of building than PZ still have the same problem. The problem is developers if and when they keep to agreements, affordable ratios are typically 10% of all builds. I don't think the free market is the solution to the affordable housing crisis, developers want to make money not subdise affordable houses.  So I don't think a higher number will fix this problem, it will help in a small way though.

I don't either recognise the validity of the housing led growth argument.  Historically jobs have been created and new industries opened up and housing has followed. I don't see how the cart will push the horse on this one. 

Then there's infrastructure, losing green fields, need I go on?

I just really wished that authorities put as much time and effort into planning growth,  fostering business and industry as they do for developers. The ultimate choice of how many houses Cornwall, Penwith and Penzance is yet to be decided by Cornwall Council. 

What housing numbers do Labour want for Penzance??

There is a lot of talk at the moment about Penzance and the Cornwall Local Plan. It is being decided up in Truro how many houses Penzance and the wider West Penwith Community Network Area should have in the next 20 years.  So what exactly are our Labour duo Cornelius Olivier and Tim Dwelly scheming behind closed doors? I'm asking because I have no idea at all.

Cornelius Olivier is quoted in the Cornishman seeking to dramatically increase the number for the Penwith Community Network area by 54% from the original 2,500 to 3,850. You have to question the mathematical research of this housing number, when in the same article Cllr Olivier is quoted as saying:

"This (extra 1,350 new homes) would only result in around 50 extra new homes a year being built in the area over the course of the plan."

Unless I'm missing something, 1350 (number of new homes (on top of the 2500)) divided by 20 (years of the local plan) equals 67.5. The original number of 2500 would equal 125 a year. The new proposed number would equal 192.5 a year. Unless of course the councilor for Penzance Central means an extra 50 homes for Penzance and an extra 17.4 for the rest of West Penwith...

To muddle things further here's a screenshot of Cllr Dwelly's facebook page, who claims an extra 21 houses a year:

Please if I'm being stupid here, someone point it out. But it seems to me that either my maths or Labour's is shoddy to say the least. If the Penwith Community Network Area number is to increase by 1350 are the extra 1000 houses assigned for places like St Just, Sennen, Pendeen, Marazion? And 350 for extra for Penzance? Somehow I don't think so.

I had researched other things to try to scrutinise their plans and try to work out what methodology they were using to justify the increase and how they'd reached the number, but sadly I'm not actually confident what their number is, a lot less so on their methodology and research... 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Should Penzance create a Neighbourhood Development Plan?

Last week I attended a training session hosted jointly by Cornwall Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) about the subject of Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDP). Here I want to outline objectively what this process is and whether this part of the world ought to set to this task or indeed not.

The main thrust of NDPs is localism they were introduced as part of the localism bill, with the view to
handing local authorities and local communities more power and say in planning the future of their area. Something I greatly agree in, I think the future of Penzance should be more powers and services devolved to the local level and less reliance on distant decision makers. So at the outset the whole process is very attractive to me and my view of politics.

So what is a Neighbourhood Development Plan? It's a bit of a slippery eel when it comes to definition. It's ultimately up to those who work through it, consulted on it and ultimately who vote on it, what it is.  In broad terms it is a plan to direct development, the NDP when (and if) adopted, becomes part of planning law. The area that it applies to has to be decided it could be part of a parish, a number of parishes and everywhere in between. So it's a very important document when finished with potentially wide ranging implications for the future development of an area so quite rightly it's a long and stringent process of careful consideration, consultation, inspection and culminates in a public referendum. This process takes at least 12 months. The flip side of that is that it is a very long and expensive process and there is a very real risk that if public consultation is not robust or that local politicians or the media aren't behind the proposed NDP it will fail at referendum. (The referendum is won or lost on a simple majority of those that go to the polls).

The process of NDP, taken from Wivenhoe Neighbourhood Plan website

The scope of a NDP is vast, even the length that it should apply is open ended, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. An NDP can be used in a number of different ways, it can be used in a 'positive' manner for example sites could be identified for housing or it could be used 'negatively' to safeguard sites from development. My understanding is that it doesn't have to be restricted to housing it can be used to guide and limit all development. So we could earmark sites for retail use or for industrial use, either to safeguard them in their present guise or to encourage developers to build such units in designated areas.

It strikes me that safeguarding or negatively outlining the limits of development is simpler (i.e. cheaper) than positively encouraging sites. For the simple reason that stating this field/ play park/ green/ allotment should not be built upon is self explanatory the only thing needed is to get consensus that this is off limits. Whereas positively identifying sites (hopefully not play parks, allotments or greens) becomes a lot more convoluted and expensive. It's not quite as simple as saying build on this land, it would have to be checked that this was lawful, that the landowner was agreeable, that there were adequate surveys. It would be no use stating we want 500 houses (for example) on these fields and nowhere else and then finding out those sites turned out to be an important habitat for protected animals or riddled with mine shafts or in some other way unsuitable for development.

So part of the scope is identifying or limiting sites for development but there are also potential design clauses for buildings and even the size of developments sites. It must be noted that a Neighbourhood Development Plan is as long or short as the community wishes, there is no limit on the number of policies. So for example the entirety of a plan could be all new builds need the highest levels of insulation. Or all new builds need solar panels on the roof. Or new houses have to use local granite. Or new developments can only be in clusters of 50 houses or 20 or 10 whichever. Or we don't want an out of town retail here and here. Also usefully the NDP can be used to set the number or ratio of affordable homes in future developments.

Now to the good bits, as well as giving local people a real say in development. One of the sweeteners for towns and parish councils and their communities is that the amount of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL: the renamed section 106) spend locally is greatly increased. (As a slight aside, the DCLG presentation had the figure of a 25% CIL for towns and parishes with a NDP and the planning officer was eager to note that Cornwall Council hadn't decided that ratio....). The NDP can have written into it, the priorities for such spending, which again lets us decide locally and democratically.

Finally the limits of NDP, it can not be used as a tool to limit development. It is local control but it does require to be 'in general agreement' with both the National Planning Policy Framework and the Cornwall Local Plan. The big issue here is that a NDP would have to be in line with the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development', it can't be used as a tool to say no to development generally and it has to accept the housing numbers that Cornwall Council wants. Which Penzance's Labour councilor Cornelius Olivier are currently trying to greatly increase (Call for extra 1,350 homes to be built in Penzance). This in a nutshell is localism, the big picture the number of houses, can be swayed by a few elected officials and officers yet to decide where they go requires a referendum, it's bonkers it really is.

I hope that summarises the scope of the Neighbourhood Development Plan scheme. It is an exciting opportunity for Penzance Town Council to step up and have a great say in the future direction of development. This alone I think is enough for us to seriously consider it. But there are serious considerations for us to consider, not only what scope we choose, whether Penzance develops it's own plan or works with neighbouring parishes and a whole host of questions and options. Whichever route we do choose if we do choose to do so, it is definite that this is a long and costly process. Do we want to concentrate a large part of our time in the next 12 months probably longer? Could councilors, the town clerk and staff do something more productive for the community instead in this time? Then there's the costs, Porthleven has announced they are to pursue a NDP with an estimated cost of 10 to 15 thousand pound. Depending on the scope of our plan and how we manage it, perhaps we'd be looking at double that budget perhaps even a lot more. Obviously we have a duty as councilors to make sure public money is well spent. Money in itself is a separate issue, should we cut services or perhaps raise the precept and thus council tax next year? I like the idea of a Neighborhood Development Plan I really do, but there's certainly a great deal to consider.

Any thoughts or comments let me know.