Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Cutting CCTV to save money and raising tax for the sake of it...

Two really wierd, or at least where I was sat, proposals came to the town councils budget meeting tonight. One from the Liberal Democrats and one from Labour. I say wierd they did make sense in some way and were certainly defended as such. But their presentation and delivery did little to sell the proposals, both failed.
The meeting was dominated by a proposal by Ruth Lewarne and Jack Dixon to cut the funding for CCTV. There was initially some confusion as they wished to cut the infrastructure budget for CCTV and maintain the monitoring budget. I'm not sure whether the underlying thought was to not have to raise the precept or to scrap CCTV, either way it didn't work. But it was left to the town clerk to ask the obvious question of what would be monitored without infrastructure. After some head scratching, awkward glances and red faces thankfully Councillor Axford stepped in to tidy up the proposal into something coherent,  by suggesting the monitoring budget be moved to the devolution fund. Thus the motion was to axe CCTV and all of it's budget in Penzance. There was a long debate both about the pros and cons of CCTV and the deal we get. About Cornwall Council pulling funding completely, the poor state of the cameras and the digital upgrade to them which has long been promised but never delivered. 
The proposal was not supported by a majority of councillors and failed.  Ensuring the future of CCTV in the town. Although this is a story that will continue to run. There are discussions at the moment about the costs of infrastructure and maintenance, specifically about driving them down. But we almost faced the end of CCTV with no public consultation,  no consultation with agencies and voluntary organisations, businesses or anybody. Just one evening in January with little obvious regard than numbers on a sheet of paper.
The serious stuff aside Cornelius Olivier had his own peculiar say on affairs. He emailed a proposal to increase the precept by 5% (a further 5% equally 10% over all). To be put in the devolution fund,  that is the pot of money we hold to take over services from Cornwall Council. Nothing too out of the ordinary in that itself. But the Councillor for Penzance Central choose to only email the town clerk, not the chairman of the council (mayor) nor his deputy nor the chair of the Finance and Property Committee. Which was unusual to say the least and not I gather in accordance with standard practices.
This situation become all the more unusual as Cllr Olivier could not be present at the meeting, due to a problem with trains apparently. After a discussion about whether a motion could be brought to the chamber without the councillor being present. It was clear there wasn't an appetite to raise the tax without a clear reason. Nobody came forward to propose the motion, not even the other Labour councillor and it didn't proceed to the vote. To clarify briefly the general consensus of the town council there is a desire to take over services from Cornwall Council but not just the ones that cost money but also the ones that raise money like car parks. Or in other words no one seems to keen to raise council tax to pay for services people already pay council tax for.
It certainly was a peculiar evening, I'll save the ins and outs of deciding where a small grant increase should come from,  which already frazzled brains struggled to comprehend. But we got there in the end, see my last post for more on the budget.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The budget: Penzance Town Council enters the Living Wage era

Tonight at Penzance Town Council the budget was passed. With some toing and froing (more on that later). As part of the budget from April we will officially be a living wage employer.
This cost was absorbed in existing budgets. Over all the precept will rise by 5%. Pushed up mainly due to the reduction in the Council Tax Support grant from Cornwall Council, the rising costs associated with inflation and the (possible) rising costs of cctv (again more on that later).
But it's a great pleasure to serve as a councillor on an authority that pays it staff the Living Wage. I'm delighted something I campaigned on and was in the Mebyon Kernow manifesto has come into being. There aren't many local authorities that do and we are certainly the first in Cornwall to make this step. Although Cornwall Council are considering it, the lack of mention of it in their budget discussions, indicates it's probably nestled in the long grass.
Credit to the staff at the town council, particularly Paul Birch the finanical officer, Simon Glasson the town clerk, Teresa Fogarty,Jackie Stone and the Finance and Property Committee. They are a small team and have worked really hard to keep an eye on costs. It's thanks to them we aren't looking at some of the bigger precept rises (or cuts in services) that other town councils in Cornwall are faced with.
For information it is only a small proportions, around 5%, of council tax that goes to town (and parish) councils. So the 5% precept rise will increase by a mucher smaller amount than it first seems. It will cost the average (I.e Band D) ratepayer £4.06 per year under 8 pence per week. The rise by Cornwall Council and no doubt Cornwall and Devon police will impact a lot more on the final council tax bill.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The first Cornish Assembly roadshow was a stunning success but...

It certainly wasn't without it's challenges, inevitably as our first event in this series we have a lot of lessons to learn. Chief among them the wind, it plays havoc with a stall and after a couple of hours we had to take it down or face it blowing away! The vagaries of winter weather in Truro city center aside, I really enjoyed the day and learnt a great deal. As everyone in the party did. We engaged with a lot of people, signed up some new members, got recently signed up members involved and hopefully got some voters in the future. As well of course as talking about a Cornish Assembly and getting petitions signed! A Few things struck me yesterday, many people are aware of the unfairness of the current political system for Cornwall. That centralisation does us no favours and both in terms of public services and economy generally we suffer as a far flung outpost of a state centralised so far away. Or as one person I spoke to put it "Everything drops off after Bristol".

I learnt support for a Cornish Assembly is not confined to Mebyon Kernow voters. I had a long and engaging conversation with a former Kerrier District Councillor who had represented the Conservative party. He was greatly supportive of a Cornish Assembly and bemoaned the centralisation of local government in Cornwall. He welcomed the invigoration of local government that an assembly would bring. I had a long conversation with a couple from Helston who were greatly supportive of devolution but it must be said very sceptical of Mebyon Kernow and what we stand for. I was happy to have the opportunity to explain this and give them some reading material. They had even read about the roadshow on facebook and come to Truro specifically to come along and sign the petition. I had many conversations yesterday and I won't summarise all of them, some were against devolution -although a surprisingly welcome small number of them (2)- some were for devolution and some needed convincing.  I also learnt as an aside people travel from far and wide to shop in Truro...

Cllr Lance Dyer and myself talking about issues facing Truro
What was greatly encouraging was the number of Mebyon Kernow members that turned up to help out. Chief among them Stephen Richardson (the General Election candidate for Truro and Falmouth) and Rod Toms, who organised the event. Also Andy Long, Loveday Jenkin, Dave Garwood, Lance Dyer, Shaun Tofty, Tim Pointer, Pete Dudley, Chris Lawrence, Lawrence Molton, Rhisiart Tal-e-bot. As well as the number of MK members and supporters that came from far and wide to wish us well and have a chat.

Next up is Penzance, hope to see some of my readers there. If you can't wait you can always sign the petition here and read more about the Cornish Assembly campaign and some faqs and what devolution means here.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Dangerous staffing levels at Falmouth Coastguard need to be addressed

Latest figures reveal understaffing at Falmouth Coastguard station is at dangerous levels, a pattern throughout the UK. Despite MCA risk assesments on the safe number of staff per Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center these are not being met, 10.8% of shifts in Falmouth in 2013 were below risk assessed level. With more MRCCs due to close, the government needs to rethink it's approach to maritime safety and realise that the desire to do more with less must take account of safe working levels and adequate Coastguard officers to co-ordinate rescues.

The figures have been released by the erstwhile campaigners Coastguard SOS and picked up by the SNP: Westminster coastguard cuts out lives at risk. A few years ago when I first started blogging, I wrote a number of posts about the government's cavalier attitude to maritime safety and criticised their attempts to dress up cuts as 'reforms'. The reason I stopped blogging was that I thought that Falmouth MRCC was now safe from 24 hour closure and Westminster had realised that it was a vital center not just for Cornwall but the North Atlantic and a much wider area. How wrong I was, I should have kept a closer eye on developments.

As you can see Falmouth is by no means the worst off, but this is no reason for complacency. The FOI to the MCA reveals that in 2013 only September had staffing levels above safe risk assessed levels. January had 16.1% of shifts below safe levels, Febuary 23.2%, March 21.0%, April 3.3%, May 11.3%, June 20.0%, July 3.2%, August 4.8%, September 0.0%, October 8.1%, November 5.0%, December 4.8%. But we shouldn't merely concern ourselves with our local area, fishermen from Cornwall sail great distances in search of fish and require coverage there. Besides which as much as I deeply care about Cornwall and the Cornish coastline the thought of mariners being at risk due to government stupidity here or anywhere else troubles me. 

Monday, 20 January 2014

The Cornish Assembly debate comes to Truro

This coming saturday (the 25th January) Mebyon Kernow will be hosting an event to highlight our campaign for a Cornish Assembly. I am happy (I think) to be named as one of the speakers for the event. So I will be talking about devolution on Lemon Quay in Truro, but I've yet to write a speech. So I was wondering dear readers, if you had any ideas, crowdsourcing works for funding, will it work for speech ideas, anyway let me know. This is the first of these events and we're going to be doing similar things in other Cornish towns and Penzance certainly will be high on the list.

It's hard sometimes with politics to assume too much about your audience and fail to make convincing arguments and conversely assume too little and be patronising. There has to be a healthy balance of not shouting slogans nor over explaining an idea. This cartoon I saw earlier on twitter made me chuckle for this reason:
The rights and wrongs of Miliband's political positioning aside, it is a real problem for politicians. Many politicians don't realise that slogans and soundbites look great in print but sound inherently weird to the ear. I've read more than my fair share of politico tweets, explaining how on the doorstep all the voters were impressed with their ideas on press regulation, banking reform. I'm sure if I knocked on anyone's door explaining one idea or the other, some would be impressed by it. But in truth a small minority of people on the doorstep will mention regulation of any form as their number one issue with politics and politicians.

So I think it's good for us as a party to be out talking to people and explaining our ideas, not just so we can tweet about how everyone is interested in a Cornish Assembly. But so we can provoke a debate, answer questions and engage the public not on the doorstep as they're trying to eat/ watch tv/ tidy/ get 5 minutes peace but as they choose in a public place. Hopefully we will gain a better understanding of what people think about a Cornish Assembly. Perhaps they have questions about it they haven't found answers for.

So returning to my original point, what should my speech be about it? why not email me robscornishblog@gmail.com tweet me @cernyw or Google +Rob Simmons. Bonus points for anyone suggesting slogans/ banking reform/ press reform or strings of nonsensical soundbites. What do you want to know about devolution? How do you think it would effect you? What are your fears and hopes for Cornwall?

Thanks for reading :)

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Housing housing housing

Housing, the local plan and all that jazz is not something I often really comment on. There was a big vote at Cornwall Council on tuesday to decide the numbers for the period 2010-2030. Penzance featured quite heavily with a motion by Councilors Cornelius Olivier and Tim Dwelly seeking to push the numbers for the Penzance area up significantly, in this they failed quite badly. So the Local Plan has new draft figures (the last council voted on figures and these have been revisited) and we have some sense what kind of idea of the housing numbers we are looking at for the next 17 years.

The numbers are 1,400 for Penzance/ Newlyn and 1,100 for the rest of the area, a 2,500 total. With the caveat that these numbers will go out to consultation of course. The defeated Labour amendment was for an increase to 2,500 for Penzance and 1,350 for the area outside Penzance (see the white area in the map below.) To put this in perspective there are 20,623 households in the Network Area (1,273 empty in Penzance Newlyn alone), the population growth of this area in the last 20 years has been 5.7% (5% for PZ/N).  If we take the average of 2.2 people per household as in the last census for the town, we are looking at a population increase of 5500 across the area, the defeated amendment would have equaled 8470.


A quick word about the vote the reason the motion proposed by the Penzance Central and Penzance East councilors failed, was it lacked support. I know it's an obvious point, I did feel sorry for the pair of them who looked very ganged up on as a quick succession of councilors got up and spoke against it. With the exception of Roy Mann who represents Ludgvan, councilors for Marazion, Penzance Central, Newlyn and Mousehole, Gulval and Heamoor and St Buryan all spoke giving valid reasons they didn't support the Labour plan. Such as no consultation for change with towns and parishes, let alone the general public, no consideration for the effect on infrastructure, no consideration for employment. And other criticisms of a narrow argument to grow the housing stock in Penwith by 15% for the sake of it. As a result on the webcast you can hear the Chair quickly count to 6 and stop all presumably from the Labour and Co-op group's 8. 

The other reason it lacked support was that any building increases in the Local Plan would inevitably fall upon the neighbouring wards. Save for the nightmare scenarios of building on Lescudjack Hill Fort, or the Rec or the roundabout in Treneere there isn't significant room for development in Penzance East. Similarly in Central and Promenade, there is only Penlee park, the Magpies football ground, the Mennaye and a few car parks where any of the proposed (and defeated) 2,500 homes would go. As a consequence they would have to be built in adjacent wards particularly on green fields around Gulval, Heamoor and Newlyn, with the real prospect of creating a huge conurbation of continuous housing around Penzance itself.  This was true of the rural area too, the Labour group voted for their quota to increase from 1000 to 1350 again nonsensically without the support of councilors for that area.

Just a few comments to finish, the idea that Penzance should grow by 15% for the sake of growth itself is a misguided concept in my opinion. The story of demographics in the town is that when the economy has been good the town population grew when it has been bad (decline of mining, quarrying, fishing) the town shrank as people moved away. The key to growth, the key to keeping people here is jobs, pure and simple. The population of Penzance in 2001 census was 21,168 in the ten years until 2011 this grew by a mere 21,200, this is a reflection of the state of the economy and the recession in that period. Where people move will always reflect the jobs market, to try to inflate population growth by allowing building lacks sense. I've said it before and I'll say it again here, the amount of housing in the next 17 years is an emotive issue, some may disagree with me some may agree, I say this because that's what I found on the doorstep in the election campaign. Politics needs to be about public input, it needs to be about community engagement and having political debates in public forums. I really hope now and in the future crucial decisions like this, that will greatly effect the shape, character and destiny of this town will have public engagement at the fore and be presented with researched evidence. Call me an idealist with some form of cross party support!

Grateful to the Our Cornwall blog for some of the statistics that I used, from this blog

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Councilor surgeries in Penzance, are you interested?

I managed to get on the agenda for tomorrow's General Purposes a motion about holding public surgeries. It's something I've heard lots of councilors talking about, but not any action on. One of the many things I've found with being a councilor is that the desire to change something and the opportunity to do so, don't always correspond.

I think it's important that councilors make efforts to engage with the public. To make people aware of what they do, and can do as a council, and for the public to express their ideas about council business.  Crucially what people think should be happening.  Unfortunately for local authorities the general malaise with politics stemming from scandals such as MPs expenses reflect on councilors too. Other events like the creation of unitary and the distant authority of Cornwall Council. Lead to a dissatisfaction,  but Penzance Town Council shouldn't shy away from our community because of others faults. Public events before the election led to a good deal of interest in the council, which is encouraging.

So on tomorrow's agenda is a discussion about holding public consultation events.  This is an early stage of the process, there will be a vote tomorrow,  a suitable venue has to be found and other details have to be ironed out. Hopefully people will be interested in these events and bring forward their ideas for the town,
problems with current services and get to know their representatives better.