Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Cameron's phone woes illustrate what's wrong with Cornish politics

The Prime Minister was in the Cornish news recently revealing his phone signal problems while holidaying in Cornwall. As the story goes David Cameron cut short some breaks because he couldn't get enough phone signal to do whatever it is he does normally. 
Suddenly this is big news, the familiar refrain of 'something should do something about that' is ever present. This is a big issue because the Prime Minister's holiday was ruined. Phone companies should be doing more, pooling resources for the common good etc. No doubt this is very true.
But my problem is why hasn't this been a problem all along? Bad mobile phone signal is not news to anyone. I live in the middle of Penzance and on a good day I might get a text message indoors, on a bad day a string of messages when I leave the house. Unlike Cameron this doesn't ruin my holidays, it ruins every day, like so many in Cornwall, work, friendships, emergencies and even the odd tasteless joke and drunken phone call are missed due to poor phone signal.
This is the fundamental problem with the distant (in every sense of the word) people in power in the UK. Could Helston or St Keverne or Porthleven or St Just councils or even Cornwall Council? or a council anywhere? change this and the answer is no. At a push they could write to their MP and probably gain their support or even write to a minister but ultimately it wouldn't change anything. It probably wouldn't even make the evening news. So really what we have to do is either get the Prime Minister to holiday in Cornwall more often or build a new political system where the day to day decisions of our communities aren't dictated by the holidaying whims of members of the central government.
As a footnote, I probably over egged it a bit and if people really want to get hold of me they often revert to the old technology and ring my landline. Or send a message or email online. Often much simpler and easier than climbing the nearest hill.... Perhaps there's a lesson there for the Prime Minister? Or would that make the narrative of understanding Cornish problems and picking up on a real issue and milking it politically a little redundant?
Hopefully this might spur long overdue improvements in mobile signal in Cornwall. Even I couldn't pick holes in that (hint hint).

Saturday, 21 June 2014

A welcome to the European funding u turn and the scandal no one wants to talk about

In the last few days there's been something of a whirlwind campaign against government plans to seize control of Cornwall's European funding. Quite why this has come out now is not abundantly clear. But it did. After a flurry of Conservative and Liberal Democrat press releases condemning (rightly) this centralisation there's now been a u turn. But the real scandal no one wants to talk about is why the delay in the next round of 'cohesion' funding.

Well not quite a u turn, depending on your view of a u turn. If I drive in my car to London get to Stonehenge and turn around that's a u turn. If I plan to drive to London and get talked out of it and never drive there is that a u turn? It's much the same with this. Apparently the 'government was considering a proposal', quite who in the government this came from isn't abundantly clear. But I guess someone somewhere thought government should take control of all of the ERDF funding centrally, hardly surprising considering the government's patronising approach to decentralisation. Now it seems the government line has softened. Compare and contrast this with a statement by Vince Cable last June, outlining a done deal on local control on ERDF funding.  

But not softened completely the car's still destined to drive some of the way to London. The announcement is that central government will let Cornwall decide to spend it's own money, once Westminster has signed it off as ok. Don't get me wrong this is infinitely preferable to losing the hundreds of jobs widely quoted in administering this money in Cornwall but why should London know best?

The real scandal of course is why the Convergence period ran from 1st of January 2007 to 31st of December 2013. Now rather than being part of the way through the 2014-2020 ERDF funding and actually spending money, government has yet to decide how it is managed and how much they want to centrally control. Which raises the question why 6 months into 2014 am I writing this?  And when will the 2014-2020 funding period actually start?

I can't believe I'm even writing this because it's so obvious and patronising. Cornwall needs investment, latest figures show our economy is faring badly. The problems of seasonal work, low wages, high house prices and high living costs are as evident as they have ever been. What we need is action from the government and Cornish politicians yet all we get is silly public arguments on details. Whilst the bigger picture remains the same and largely ignored. Cornwall can ill afford a gap in this funding whilst the coalition gets it's house in order.

The 'u turn' or change in proposals is a good thing. Local control ought to be the default position of government not central control. So we can decide and the jobs the come with deciding and administering this money should be here in Cornwall, not taken away. The government needs to find fresh impetus to getting new European funding online and stop squabbling about the details and then perhaps the 2014 funding period might start in this year!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Government finally acknowledge Penzance town council letter about flood defences

On monday I blogged about Penzance and the lackadaisical response to the flood damage from central government.  I expressed disappointment that the letter sent to the Prime Minister from the then mayor Phil Rendle had gone weeks and weeks without a response. Just now 5 days after I posted my blog, the post came, including a letter from Dan Rogerson providing a partial response to some of the points raised by the town council.

Dan writing here in his capacity as Parliamentary Under Secretary in DEFRA. Apoligises for the lateness in the reply citing high volumes of correspondence about the winter storms. (Perhaps it's not just the passport office running a record back log?)

The following paragraphs are pretty generic.  I'm sure everyone's had ample time over the last 3 months to read and hear government ministers repeat these messages. Here they're no doubt copied and pasted from elsewhere. 1.4 million homes saved from flooding across the UK, capital investment programme across the UK blah blah blah.

Things change to the subject of Mount's Bay and the £95,000 allocated to Cornwall Council to draw up a coastal management strategy.  Big sums maybe. Enough to do that job maybe. The letters also has a briefing note attached from the Environment Agency (dated May 2014), which explains a little more about this strategy and the important fact this project started in summer 2013. We can only trust those original allocated funds are enough to cover the task and that the strategy will take lessons from the 2014 storms...

The letter explains any options of a break water to protect the seafront will need to be considered in that strategy. Again will due weight be given to more recent storms in this regard?

Apparently Defra and Cornwall Council have been working on a business case to repair the Eastern Green- Penzance harbour-Penzance prom, sea defences.  That £2.98 million has been secured to repair these sea defences. Welcome news, I have no idea how far that goes to putting good the damage or what they're even proposing. Sounds like early days for that one, fingers crossed work is done before next winters storms...

As for Newlyn Green apparently little will be done as according to the Environment Agency there's: "little risk of flooding or erosion resulting in a loss of residential property." Quite what works are going there at the moment are obviously unknown to government. Presumably Cornwall Council is picking up that tab...

There's a similar approach to Jubilee Pool to quote the Environment Agency report: "the damage and potential further loss of the Jubilee Pool has limited impact on risk to the property adjacent to the area, so would not eligible for funding from this allocation." Like their view on Newlyn Green I think's it's a contestable point and both ignore the fact there are buildings not to mention a vital road protected to some degree by these structures.

I'm still disappointed all this talk of "money is no object" and "I'll pick up the tab" from David Cameron is now muddled with a raft of ifs, buts and maybes. Not only that but a straight answer is so very difficult. Here we are months after the storms and we're still no nearer to our sea front being fixed and we don't even know when it will be done and what it will end up looking like. On the plus side at least Westminster is replying to letters on the issue now....

Monday, 9 June 2014

What does Penzance need to do to get storm money from the government?!?

One hundred and fifteen days ago, or if you prefer 3 months and 26 days ago, Penzance was hit by ferocious storms culminating in the biggest one on St Valentine's day. Despite various promises at the time when the media spotlight was on the government, precious little has been done since in the forgotten west. In a stark contradiction to the prompt repairs in Aberystwyth. As many coastal communities, the Somerset levels and riverside properties feared for their homes and livelihoods it was boom times for the gentleman outfitters in the vicinity of Westminster with a big run on wellington boots. As members of all the Westminster parties were quick to turn and practice their concerned faces:

Here in Penzance millions of pounds worth of damage was caused, the prom was a mess, Newlyn Green was like a demolition site, the harbour wall had blocks missing, the rail line was flooded. As this video from the day after amply demonstrates (just some) of that destruction:

Credit to the emergency services, Cormac and Cornwall Council I often criticise the latter in their approach to Penzance. But they did a really good job of getting the road back open and making the area safe. Unfortunately precious little has happened since, despite government promises at the time that money was no object, Cameron's promise has had little effect on the ground. Despite the fact I wrote to the Prime Minister on the 23rd of February  asking when storm money would be spent in Penzance I never received a reply from David Cameron. I wasn't reallly expecting anything to come of it, but I was surprised when Penzance Town Council wrote to the government asking when promised storm damage monies and urging government to work with other bodies to build a breakwater but also received no answer.

So here we are the picture above was taken the other day. What does it say about Penzance, hardly inspiring for locals or visitors to be faced with that every day. But could things be different?
Yes it turns out, I came across this story the other day, with a commitment from the Welsh Assembly government to carry out works to Aberystwyth prom before easter. By the local authority (Ceredigion Council) and the national government working together to get this fixed as fast as possible releasing monies necessary, no heel dragging, blaming bureaucracy making everyone jump through long and convoluted bid processes. What a great example of devolved government being closer to the people, more in touch with local areas and working better with other authorities. What a refreshing story compared to central government who couldn't even be bothered to reply to letters let alone spend some of our taxes for the common good. I'd write to someone and complain but what would the point be?

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Why is austerity and cuts to public services the consensus?

There's been stories going around for a while that Labour is to join, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the austerity agenda. Despite the obvious negative effects it has on public services, all of the established parties have signed up to it. In some senses they all had in 2010, but there still remained some economic differences between the big three. So the question I ask myself is why the anti cuts movement and the obvious public dislike of cuts to public services and public spending not materialised in either of the Westminster parties?

The effects of austerity are profound and it is obvious the most needy are the worst effected. Some of the prime examples in Cornwall include the shutting down of vital respite centers in Redruth and Truro, the closure of cottage hospitals like Poltair in Penzance (and perhaps soon St Michael's in Hayle too). The ending of council tax support in Cornwall meaning council tax benefit is greatly reduced, compounding the government's bedroom tax policies. But it's not only the most vulnerable individuals but also the most hard pressed of institutions, schools have a massive backlog of infrastructure and maintenance and the most obvious example is the much needed works at Helston school. Roads that at the start of this government were in need of repair are now in a worse state, although a lot of this has been due to the bad weather (which it would probably be unfair to blame on the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.) There is also a myriad of other things that have greatly effected individuals, redundancies, pay freezes, government raids of people's pensions. Cuts to public transport effected the people that live and work in the rural areas the hardest. I don't imagine everything would have been perfect if a government had taken power in 2010 and pledged to stimulate the economy with spending and safeguarded front-line spending. But it is clear things would be different, how would our roads look with the budgets necessary to keep up them of a good standard? What would our town centers be like with public toilets? and the list carries on....

My criticism of austerity has been the same as it has always been, not only the destruction of public services but also the raised prominence of figures in columns, above everything else. Take this passage taken from the Telegraph from Labour's Ed Balls for example:

The shadow cabinet have been told to design policies within the overall spending limits that the Coalition will announce later this month. He said Labour must prepare to operate within “very tough spending plans from this year's spending review”, adding: “They will be our starting point.”
“We will plan, we will expect in 2015-16 that we will inherit the current spending plans that the Chancellor sets out and we will work within them,” Mr Balls said.
“For us to come along now and say we will plan to spend more in 2015-16 would be completely irresponsible.”

It is all about fiscal discipline, there is little consideration for how this will effect public services and what kind of society this ideology will bring. To my mind it focusses on the details so much that the bigger picture is completely lost. I don't mean to overly criticise Labour in this blog they are only doing what the Tories and the Lib Dems have been doing in government for the last 4 years. But I'm sure the coalition would happily endorse the shadow chancellor's sentiments and the only furrowed brows in Westminster will be how to present exactly the same economic policies without giving the game away. I can well imagine meetings between the parties and long acrimonious arguments over who will take the mantle of the Popular Front of Judea and who the Judean People's Front.

This comes as no great surprise to many, the big three (+the small one UKIP), believe in the neoliberalism dogma. Debates over the fundamentals of economics, socialism, capitalism, Keynesian, industrialisation and even privatisation versus nationalisation are not ones heard in Westminster, they are largely now the concern of economic historians and activists outside of the mainstream of UK politics. No doubt there are nuanced arguments within neo-liberalism between Labour, Conservative and the Lib Dems, like how much deregulation is enough? How much should private business dictate working conditions? Should it be Serco or G4S that take over this or that public service? But much like Labour's rather weak opposition of 'the cuts are too far too fast' it's a minor criticism. It approaches the subject from the same angle, the general thrust is agreed and the debate is on minor tweaks. This neo-liberal consensus continues with similar policies on austerity.

This is now a situation we find ourselves in and it is a situation that will continue for the foreseeable future. Local government has been at the forefront of cuts as it is at the forefront of delivering services and this has had a real effect. But it will continue to do so, no one from the major parties has ever campaigned for the cuts to councils to be abated. Sure individual decisions have been questioned, but there's been no uproar at Westminster for cuts to local government to be stopped or for money to be found for specific services.

I don't quite know what to do about this situation and what activists and others can do. Whether they be on the left, in an anti cuts movement or just people that want decent 21st century public services. There's some interesting thoughts from Mike Sagar-Fenton on the subject in a column titled: Close Cornwall down and defeat government greed. A must read which advocates local Councillors telling government politely to stop. Which in a roundabout way echoes Mebyon Kernow's earlier call for Coalition Councillors to resign over cuts. Send a message to the governing parties that they will not be members of parties that are destroying the fundamental services of Cornwall Council. But the fundamental problem in both cases, in my opinion, is that these councillors are signed up to their respective party's policies. That they either don't want to criticise their parties or they are fearful to do so. As we saw with the case of Deborah Hopkin's summary dismissal from the Labour party that critique of the economic order will not be tolerated, I know her's is a special case as the tweets were intemperate and in some cases offensive, but not really wrong in matter of fact and principle. But still it goes to show that local representatives are there to tow the party line and stay 'on message' and for the moment that line is tied firmly to austerity.  

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

In praise of Cornwall at the final

Just wanted to write a few words about Cornwall's trip to the home of English rugby at the weekend for the final of the Bill Beaumont Cup. Lay some praise on the squad and the coaching staff for a really great game and indeed run of games in the championship.

This was the second year that I traveled up to Twickenham with friends including Stephen Richardson pictured above. It certainly was a great occasion, thousands of 'Trelawny's army' marching on (or should that be driving to) London. I don't know the exact number of Cornwall fans dotted around the colossal stadium but it certainly seemed like more people than at your average rugby game in Cornwall itself. To all intents and purposes this fixture has always been more like a home game for the Cornish side whoever their opponents. As an example we just got there in time to see the Cornish squad arrive by coach, to a boisterous Black and Gold crowd:
As a sharp contradiction a few minutes later the Lancashire side arrived:
Perhaps the Northerners preferred the calm and not being mobbed for signatures by a crowd yelling Oggy Oggy Oggy, or perhaps not...

I really enjoyed the game, the atmosphere and the Cornish fans in good spirit and song was superb. I'm no sports pundit, why we didn't win (or why we lost) is a subject you can already read a great deal on, I don't really have anything to add to the debate of ifs, buts and maybes. For me the final was absolutely fantastic it was a great game of rugby and I would suggest one of the finer examples of the game. Despite the nerves that must have gripped the players on both sides, playing in such a huge and iconic stadium and the prize at stake for the winners, the game was played in the best of spirits. If memory serves, only one player was issued a yellow card, ignoring the squirrel for a moment. Tempers and discipline were kept in check. Better still there was a great mix of playing styles by Cornwall, one of the most impressive rolling mauls I've seen in a while, some excellent scrummaging. But also some great incisive running from the backs (and of course Jamal!). A welcome break from the 'kick tennis' that marks the modern game and a lot of running rugby. In a sharp contradiction to the following England XV v Barbarians game, punctuated by gaps in play, there was barely a minute to take a breath throughout the whole final. Set pieces were taken relatively quickly and the game was played at a ferocious pace, unusual these days!

To sum I really enjoyed the day, it was a great game of rugby and I think the Cornish boys did themselves proud and certainly had the heart and determination to have won the coveted cup. I have nothing but praise for them. This championship comes at the end of long bruising seasons for all the players at their clubs. To come together in such a short time frame with a new coach and come this far is a great achievement in itself. It's a similar situation for the fans, organising in the space of a week to make that huge journey and get tickets is a task in itself.  Credit to one and all, the fans made for a really great atmosphere and our boys played some really good rugby, one of my more enjoyable sundays in a long time, thanks everyone.