Sunday, 27 July 2014

A progressive case for a Cornish Assembly

I'm on holiday at the moment in Aberystwyth, but here's an article I wrote a while back for Country Standard which features in their latest magazine. I was trying to present an alternate argument for devolution to Cornwall, let me know what you think?

Just firstly to introduce myself I am Rob Simmons a member of Mebyon Kernow- the Party for Cornwall a town councillor in Penzance and the party's general election candidate for the St Ives constituency next May. Like many people in MK I see myself as a progressive and I am proud that one of my first initiatives on the town council was to persuade the council to introduce the living wage for employees. But of course I am as well as a de-centralist. Many of the things I would like to change in Cornwall are to do with social policy as much as they are to do with constitutional change, below is my argument that a Cornish Assembly would be progressive and ought to be supported by people who want fundamental change where ever and whomever they might be. 

We live in interesting times in politics whatever your views on the subjects. The rise of the Green party, the NHA and indeed UKIP in the polls and of course the anti cuts movement, the dispute between the Trade Unions and the Labour party, more powers for the Welsh assembly, localism and the Scottish referendum. Politics is in a period of great flux, certainties that have held for decades and centuries are no longer holding. Things are changing and there are moves in Cornwall to make a great change to the landscape of British politics; devolution to a Cornish Assembly. 

But why should progressives care? indeed why should anyone without a heart full of Cornish pride even bat an eye lid at this idea? I think firstly everyone concedes that politics in the UK is vastly over centralised, nearly every facet of local government is dominated by the austerity agenda of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Sure there are choices to be made in every local authority but these are within the constraints of Westminster's agenda. Every political party concedes that centralisation is a fundamental problem, Labour planned democratic regional assemblies these fell by the way side. The coalition talks a great deal of localism but with the last gasps of that government (thankfully) coming to an end, it seems that localism will go the same way as New Labour plans and become only of interest to historians. Whilst the Labour government and the Tory/Lib Dem one have ummed and erred about how plans will actually pan out. Cornwall has patiently been sitting at the back of the class with our hands firmly up but government like a teacher with failing eye sight hasn't yet caught the master's attention. 

Centralisation is not just a question of constitutional or governmental matters. It is also very evident in economics although the way regional statistics across wide ranging areas doesn't help our understanding. It's only from these kind of catch all analysis that we can make the assumption that the south is rich and the north is poor. The finer detail is that wealth emanates from the capital, slowly leaching out to the Home Counties and reducing as we travel further north and west and in Cornwall's case south west. 306 miles way from Penzance lies London the richest city in Europe and one of the richest in the whole world, yet here Cornwall is one of the poorest places in the whole EU and has recently slipped behind everywhere in the UK to be the poorest region in Britain. The ward I represent is one of the most deprived in Cornwall, there are long terms problems with unemployment, health, low wages and housing. I know that not everything in London is rosy, that among the 72 billionaires there is also real hardship. That economic productivity and the creation of wealth does not necessarily mean a rise in living standards across the board. But this is a separate subject and it is very clear that the London model or rampant neo-liberalism is not one that I would like to see replicated here. It nevertheless holds thought that increasing productivity is a way of making an area better off. For this to happen I would argue Cornwall needs devolution. 

Recently Mebyon Kernow launched a Campaign for a Cornish Assembly with various roadshows in Cornish towns, an internet campaign and a consultation document on our plans for devolution. This document titled: "Towards a National Assembly for Cornwall" is available on the MK website ( Our plans are for a fundamental redrawing of governance in Cornwall with both powers devolved from central government to the assembly and powers passed down within Cornwall. For the new assembly to take responsibility for areas like Agriculture, Fishing and Food Production, Health, Energy Policy, Housing and Social Services. Take the various quangos and trusts that run all manner of services back under public control. These ideas are out for consultation which ends soon and we welcome comments from members of the public and organisations on them. Fundamentally what we want is freedom from Westminster to make our own decisions, to find the solutions that our unique to our situation. To see if we can make a better go of thinks and to try to pick up the economy of Cornwall. Right wingers will often say that we are to poor for devolution, but we think that we are to poor for the status quo, things are not right at the moment and doing nothing will not change that. 

I'd love to make the kinds of arguments that are being made at the moment in Scotland that Independence would bring a more progressive government. But not only are we not going for separation from the UK our promises for the changes it might bring are also more modest. I'd love to write here that a Cornish Assembly would see Cornwall's workers earning a living wage, that services like the NHS would be run for the good of front-line services and accountable to the people not shareholders but those situations might not happen. It's no good promising these things. But there are signs that governance in Cornwall might be more progressive with devolution. Despite the fact Cornwall's MPs are split evenly between the coalition partners and that has been the case in the past. (Ignoring the very real possibility of a Lib Dem wipe out next year for a moment). The lower you get down local government the more progressives there are and the more signs that parties like Mebyon Kernow, the Greens and Labour are an active part of politics. Cornwall Council even itself outed the last Conservative leader because he tried to force through a massive privatisation scheme. Since last years elections, despite there only being 4 MK, 8 Labour and 1 Green members on Cornwall Council and they are dwarfed by the 123 others dominated mainly by the 29 Conservatives and 37 Liberal Democrats. There are also 36 independents, between this hotchpotch and despite the overbearing austerity they are currently investigating ways of  all of the authorities workforce being paid the living wage. A progressive Cornish assembly is by no means a dead cert but please don't write off Cornwall as fundamentally regressive based on party rosettes. 

So I started this with a question why should progressives care? I think my argument is this, Cornwall needs change, the economy is far from thriving under centralised rule. We need to do things differently, the wealth created in the financial sectors of the city, like so much else, doesn't trickle down here. My appeal to progressives is not just because I am one, it is because I believe progressives are the people with vision, that is what unites us most. The desire to build a better society, to legislate for fairness the willingness to not go along with the powers that be, unquestioningly. To dare to dream and to not fear change. I call on each and everyone of you to consider what I have written, consider the changes we propose, look at our ideas and if you agree please sign the petition.

My party's website is here
My own blog here

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Some thoughts on the recent Cornwall Council by elections

Over the last few weeks there were 2 by elections in the space of 2 weeks the first in Illogan and the second in Mabe, Perranarworthal and St Gluvias. I've had some time to think about the campaigns and the results and now find time to write about them. For what it's worth my thoughts on them. I'll talk about each by election separately and then the meaning for the various parties involved as I see it.(I have copied and pasted result tables direct from with many thanks to @KristoferKeane.)


Illogan was an interesting contest as a by election and there was always a lot at stake for all of the parties and their candidates. In the contest in the Cornwall Council election in May 2013 the Tories had topped the poll, with Mebyon Kernow second and UKIP not far behind in third with a 31% turn out.

2013 Result

PartyCandidateVotesVote %
ConservativeTerry Wilkins33128.8%
Mebyon KernowStephen Richardson29025.2%
UKIPDon Armstrong25922.5%
Lib DemsDavid Ekinsmyth15713.7%
LabourLinda Moore1139.8%

The by election result was as follows with a 32.4% turn out:

PartyCandidateVotesVote %Change
Lib DemsDavid Ekinsmyth27723.8%+10.1%
Mebyon KernowStephen Richardson21718.6%-6.6%
ConservativeAdam Desmonde21518.5%-10.3%
UKIPClive Polkingthorne15613.4%-9.1%
LabourTrevor Chalker12911.1%+1.3%
LiberalPaul Holmes12110.4%+10.4%
GreenJacqueline Merrick504.3%+4.3%

I think it's far to say no one was expecting that result, but was it really a surprise? In some senses no, the dive in popularity of the Lib Dems may have been a factor in 2013 but this problem was circumvented by a number of factors. The Lib Dems had a strong base in Illogan winning in a by election there in 2002 narrowly squeezing out the Liberal Party who subsequently took the seat from the Lib Dems in 2005 again by a close margin. Not forgetting the earlier election that saw the Liberal Party's Paul Holmes win (against the Lib Dems) by such a close margin a judge ordered a recount. So although Terry Wilkin's would win for the Tories in 2009 and 2013, it was far from a no go area for the Lib Dems. 

Also has to be considered is the candidate David Eskinsmyth is a very strong candidate. He has a track record in the area, the candidate and their history in the area and popularity etc can never be underestimated. One of my pet hates with an over reliance on opinion polls is they tend to focus on parties and ignore personalities, many people would rather vote for a candidate they like than for a party. 

The campaigning in Illogan was immense, particularly for MK, the Lib Dems, Labour and UKIP. I was only there once half way through the campaign and on polling day. But in that time I saw 10 Cornwall Councillors from the far corners of Cornwall and 3 PPCs for Camborne and Redruth, who knows how many more through the rest of the election period. I don't think the parties had much more to give in this contest and by far the Lib Dems threw the most at it. 

Mebyon Kernow- the Party for Cornwall had a strong candidate in Stephen Richardson, who had a stunning result from a standing start last year to come second. The addition of the Green party, the Liberal Party and a much stronger Labour and Lib Dem campaign than last year, was always going to muddy the waters. I still feel disappointing that Stephen did not win. He ran a good campaign and managed to bring in people to help him, I don't think he could have done much more and stood up well to the impressive might of the Westminster parties campaigning machines. Obviously there was some votes lost to other parties but by no means a collapse in support. There are lessons for the party from this by election. 

Mabe Perranarworthal and St Gluvias:

Again this was an interesting contest with a rise in parties contesting from 2013. Unlike Illogan which took time from the incumbent resigning until the election, the process here was much more rapid. In a peculiar twist John Ault the Lib Dem candidate was the only candidate to stand in both 2013 and 2014 with a 40% turn out. 

PartyCandidateVotesVote %
UKIPMichael Keogh41328.6%
ConservativeChris Ridgers41028.4%
Lib DemsJohn Ault33122.9%
IndependentChristopher Jackson16011.1%
LabourBetty Ross1298.9%

By election result with a 28.6% turn out:

PartyCandidateVotesVote %Change
ConservativePeter Williams40632.6%+4.2%
Lib DemsJohn Ault40532.5%+9.6%
UKIPPete Tisdale27121.7%-6.9%
LabourLinda Hitchcox1078.6%-0.3%
Mebyon KernowKaren Sumser-Lupson584.7%+4.7%

Again the result was a bit of a surprise and I think UKIP will have been a bit shocked. This was their first by election ever for Cornwall Council and they have already lost one of their first Cornwall Councillors. For the Tories to win was not especially surprising. They held the seat before and were shocked when the previous cabinet member Chris Ridgers lost last year. In terms of previous results, it's hard to really draw any great comparisons historically as the division was very different. 

Peter Williams is certainly a strong candidate, a former tin miner and a factor in their victory. Much like the Illogan by election, this was a hard fought contest, with the place flooded with leaflets, canvassers and teams of doorknockers. We might ponder how the strength of John Ault, who's cv includes lecturer in politics at Tremough, chair of the Electoral Reform Society and being a former Cornwall County Councillor effected the results. 

For Mebyon Kernow is was an interesting election, certainly the focus was more on Illogan than here. Unfortunately there wasn't as strong a campaign here, but a lot was done on a couple of weeks notice. Also we did not stand here before so MK was coming from a standing start. For Karen it was her first time standing and although she works in the division, she does not live there which is never an ideal situation for a candidate. Considering all of these factors Karen did very well and although it is never good to come last in an election 4.7% from 0% is a good result
What this all means for politics:
In terms of what the result meant for the other parties. These elections are crucial most of the Mabe, Perranarworthal and St Gluvias and all of Illogan are in the Camborne, Redruth and Hayle constituency. This is widely tipped to be a close run affair next May and every single party thinks they can do well here. In part both of these by elections were a dry run of the campaigning over the coming months. 

To collate the results from both by elections:
2013 elections      2014 by elections
Mebyon Kernow                                            290                             275
Lib Dems                                                       488                             682
Conservatives                                                 741                             621
UKIP                                                             672                             427
Labour                                                           242                             236
Green                                                                 0                               50

(Please note this is more for reference than an absolute marker. Turn out rose 1.4% in Illogan and fell 11.4% in the Mabe, Perranarworthal and St Gluvias poll.) 

I think obviously the Lib Dems felt the happiest about the results. They would certainly like to see it as a sign things are turning around after the low ebb of 2013 where they did very badly indeed resulting in only 1 Cornwall Councillor elected for them. They would hope that it bodes well for Julia Goldsworthy for next year. It certainly isn't a bad result for them, but it is unrealistic that they could put that kind of time and work in everywhere for next year's poll. But perhaps the same can be said of all parties. Also how much was this a victory for David Eskinsmyth and John Ault and how much for the Lib Dems? 

Conservatives will be happy with Mabe Perranarworthal and St Gluvias and should thank every single Tory voter because if 2 of them had stayed at home or voted for someone else they would've lost. To win it back from UKIP is an obvious psychological victory in their tit for tat battles and they no doubt hope voters are coming back to them. I think they will be less than impressed with the Illogan result to go from first to third isn't good and I imagine coming behind Mebyon Kernow hurt their pride. In terms of next May every vote will count, beating UKIP twice in a week is a plus but I'd imagine George Eustice is starting to feel nervy. 

For UKIP these elections were a backward step. Targeting 2 wins was no doubt a target and ought to have been achievable, holding on to existing voters and picking up a handful more theoretically could have done it. Down 9.1% and 6.9% in a week is a bitter pill to swallow. Is this due to the lack of blanket coverage in the media of UKIP recently? or has this fad passed? In terms of May there was a long way to go for them to win in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle before these results but now...

Labour hmm like most parties a mixed result +1.3% in 1 election and - 0.3% in the other. Combined with the fact 1 result was a fifth and the other a fourth, it's hardly outstanding. But then in 2013 they were last in both results and did not repeat that again, so not totally bad. Pretty much the same comment as for UKIP they might fancy there chances and will try to paint next years general election as there's to win but there's not much evidence here for that assumption. I think they'll be fairly disappointed with these results.

The Green party, not a great deal to say, came from nowhere in Illogan and got 50 votes with 4.3% of the vote. I don't think there was a great deal of campaigning by them either. Hard to know what to make of it for them.

Mebyon Kernow absolutely brilliant result will mean Loveday Jenkin will easily win in 2015 ( ; 

Seriously though hard to say really as I am obviously biased and I do think we can get a good result in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle next year. With a strong candidate, a strong campaign in an area we've done well in the past, we can nearly match the might of the bigger parties. Without that it's much more difficult. There is still a lot of work that needs doing, getting our voice heard and building our profile and support base to make a bigger impact in the next general election. That said, we do have a strong candidate and lots of parts of the constituency, we have got our voice heard and do have a solid base already.


There's lessons for all of the parties in these by elections. Are we any closer to predicting next year's result? I don't think so, after all both areas together amount to a tiny proportion. Add to that the time between now and the election and the uncertainty grows. If we were to ignore these facts and look at the by election results alone it would look like Mebyon Kernow, Labour and the Greens were outsiders and that the age old Tory/ Lib Dem dominance would continue. I think it's safe to say that the Tories and Lib Dems are better than anyone else at running election campaigns and when they can focus on a single area they can achieve a great deal. An article on Lib Dem Voice claims that John Ault's campaign included 10 leaflets and every door knocked 3 times. I doubt this kind of focused activity can be replicated when elections are being fought across the UK and activists won't be able to be bussed in from far and wide. To quote the ancient Greek Heraclitus "You could not step twice into the same river." The same sentiment is true of elections, like rivers everything changes, by elections are unique events and everything is up for grabs next year. 

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

An update on the lack of superfast broadband in Penzance town centre

I have been busy working away at contacting businesses and organisations in Penzance. I have learnt a great deal about how superfast broadband works and the various incarnations ie. FTTP, FTTC etc. Also a great deal about how it effects a number of businesses. There is so far a mixed reaction some would like superfast broadband and it would make their organisation more efficient, whereas others need faster internet to allow their companies to grow. The vast majority think super fast broadband is a good thing and the roll out is needed for the town centre.

As you would expect from the diversity of businesses in the town centre. I have so far contacted local companies only (about 70) and avoided contacting chains based outside Cornwall and pubs. But I know that there are a large number of companies that have forgotten (I keep thinking of more and more). So if you are a company that I have forgotten please fill out the form here: Penzance Broadband Survey. I have also included an option for businesses and organisations not based in PZ but elsewhere in Cornwall, feel free to take part if that applies to you.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Getting superfast broadband into Penzance town center

Superfast broadband was hailed as a great thing, superfast Cornwall was to bring lots of benefits and give us the fastest internet connections in the world. Although the fibre optic cables have been laid in Penzance there is a remarkable situation whereby parts of the town center can't get access to it. A couple of businesses have spoken to me expressing their frustration at this. I think this needs to change and I have been busy this morning emailing around town center businesses trying to understand what problems this is causing and building the argument that the economic benefits of a business having superfast broadband are not being felt here. Leaving one of Cornwall's biggest town centers in a 'chocolate fireguard situation' of being among the 5% not able to utilise this technology that was seen as key to revitalizing the economy. As Superfast Cornwall explain on their website:

"Funded by the European Union, BT and Cornwall Council, and managed by Cornwall Development Company, Superfast Cornwall will improve the lives of the people of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, giving a much needed boost to the economy. Learning, playing and working will be transformed, encouraging innovation amongst the regions businesses."

This PZ deadspot is due the fact the exchange in Penzance is in the middle of town so most of the shops and offices can't connect, despite the fact fibre cables run outside their properties. offers this:

The questions I sent are as follows, I did email just over 40 local businesses and have had a half dozen replies already not all of the town centre shops, offices and organisations I have been able to contact so far. If that includes you please email me (if you don't mind) with your answers any other comments and the name of your organisation.

UPDATE: with many thanks to Simon Nebesnuick (follow him on twitter here) he has created a much simpler google form to do the questions below, click here

Does your company use the internet to generate business?

On a scale of 1 to 10 how important is the internet to your business?

Would a faster internet connection improve your business?

Do you have access to Superfast broadband i.e FTTP (fibre to the premises)?

Would you upgrade to superfast if it was available?

Without superfast in the town center would you consider relocating to somewhere with superfast access?

Did you think the large investment in superfast broadband roll out in Cornwall was:

good for business in general?

good for Penzance?

good for your business?

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The silliness of painting lines over the Hayle A30 roundabout problem

You may have missed it whilst driving but the Loggan's Moor roundabout has had the 'Chivvy treatment' and the problem of congestion met with subtle reorganisation. Now at the cost of £200,000 there have been lines painted demarcating where drivers should be when negotiating the roundabout. As the Highways Agency explained:

What are the benefits?

The scheme improvements will result in improved flow through the junction by increasing it's traffic capacity and improving identification of traffic routes and so reducing waiting times, especially during peak tourist times. The proposals achieve wider benefits in supporting growth in the surrounding area, such as development at Hayle.

I was waiting with baited breath to see how much this did change things and has so far only been through at less than peak travel hours and found not a great deal of difference. Sure not being cut up at the roundabout was a good thing but when I'd driven round, it wasn't busy so wouldn't have been a problem anyway.

Then on thursday I had to drive up to St Dennis from Penzance, late at night on the way back I was treated to the awesome thunder and lightning show, which was truly breath taking, the trip up there was not so breath taking. Leaving here at 6 in the evening I thought that even with it being the summer, it would be late enough to ensure a fairly smooth drive and I was truly wrong. Passing Sainsbury's wasn't a great problem, it seems like such a small amount of cars that turn off to the store is there a point of yet another roundabout on our supposed trunk road?

But anyway, Crowlas was at a standstill and the traffic crawled along until the Hayle bypass. There it opened up until it went back to a single lane and traffic was queuing on the corner before the viaduct all the way to the roundabout. Notwithstanding the possibility that there was an unusual amount of traffic going past Hayle at quarter past 6, I've never been in the queue so far up. The other side it was the same old same old, traffic queuing up to the Roseworthy Dip (or big dipper is you prefer). So west bound and east bound there was the queuing that there has become so common. As most motorists in West Cornwall had feared a few lines on the tarmac had not solved the problem at all. Hundreds of motorists all bottlenecked to the same location, inevitably have to stop or slow at a roundabout causing congestion.

The journey continued in a similar vein slow up to Chivvy, slow after than at a standstill after the short section of dual carriageway (or 2 lanes for pedants) at Zelah. Crawling towards Carland Cross, funnily enough not the same problems afterwards on the dual carriageway without roundabouts!

As many of us know the powers that be are planning an increase in the rate of house building up until 2030. There already concerns being raised in the west that this will lead to gridlock especially in places like Ludgvan, Crowlas, Carbis Bay and Lelant which have traffic problems already. With public transport on the slide, becoming less and less of a priority for the government and Cornwall Council problems looks set to get worse as road use inevitably rises.

The other cause for concern is the importance of roads to the Cornish economy. The Highway's Agency cites tourism and no doubt this is an issue the population of Cornwall this time of year massively increases and thus the number of vehicles. There is always a danger people will choose to holiday elsewhere if they spend too long travelling and stuck in traffic.

But of course tourism is not the be all and end all and unbeknownst to most decision makers outside Cornwall there is life in Cornwall outside the summer. The other reason given is population growth ignoring the fact that the problem exists now, let alone with tens of thousands of new homes in West Cornwall. Lots of people commute to work/ education and training in Cornwall especially along the A30 corridor. Delivery, logistics and the odd tractor travelling within Cornwall rely upon our trunk road. In addition a massive part of the Cornish economy is the food and food production industry, which has a huge export market. With a huge amount of Cornish produce, fish, meat, veg, milk, clotted cream etc being exported to England. That's not even to mention all of the other industries that export and import along the A30. What is the impact on people's lives constantly queuing to go to work and college? What is the cost to freight companies to have lorries sat in queues? How could productivity be increased and the Cornish economy grow if employees and assets spent less time sat in traffic?

It comes to a stage where the wider economic impact of having poor connection links within Cornwall and with the wider world needs to be addressed, whether through building bigger capacity roads or diversifying and making rail travel or bus travel more attractive. What is clear though is that painting lines on a roundabout doesn't address the problem and it never will. The attitude of government whether through the Highway's Agency or other departments is guided by the treasury and is not about what it best for Cornwall and our economy and quality of life but what is cheapest. With the occasional sticking plaster added with more fanfare than real purpose...

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Penzance plan starts here, with myself on the board!

This is of course the neighbourhood plan for Penzance, more properly and in the words of a former Cornwall Council planner (Andy England) the process of 'planning for a plan' is well and truly in the offing. Last night at the town council I was elected onto the Penzance Neighbourhood Plan Board. Regular readers of the blog will now I have written on this subject before, back in October last year Should Penzance create a Neighbourhood Development Plan? I think it gives my initial views on the process and also some of the limitations I think it holds. For a more generic description try this from the DCLG.

Briefly a Neighbourhood Plan (NP) guides and informs planning decisions for the length of the plan (typically 20 years). Within the constraints of planning law (i.e. the National Planning Policy Framework) and the local plan (currently being devised by Cornwall Council). Unlike those policies that have already decided crucial matters like number of houses the NP will have the constraint and the advantage of being borne from the community. Although Penzance Town Council has started this process and will work with others it is not our plan, it is the communities plan. The whole process is punctuated by public consultations and then at the end a public referendum. There is a lot of talk about localism at the moment and giving local communities the say on key decisions, the Neighbourhood Plan is one of the few examples of this happening.

I think it would be very easy to underestimate the scale and importance of this task. Simple old fashioned public consultations won't cut it, listening only to consultants or solely to those that shout loudest could mean the plan will be doomed to failure at referendum, it is imperative the vast majority of the public are involved in the process. So it will be a great deal of work but will be better for it.

Policies outlined in Penzance's plan will become planning law. I'm sure any of us could look around the town (or indeed anywhere else) and see planning decisions that for better or worse have changed the fundamental nature of the place. For example, what if planners had never allowed the harbour to be filled in for a car park? what if your local park or green space had been built upon? It's easy to see planning policies as words on a piece of paper but the decisions taken in the plan will help shape the future of our community. I know many of you will be reading this well aware of planning policies you do and don't like, but I do hope there are others reading this now (and in the future of the process) that will think about how planning effects themselves and their neighbourhoods and what they'd like to see from it.

So what is the board? Well firstly it has been named the Penzance Neighbourhood Plan Board and its job is Governance and Management of the NP process. To be more exact:

"Establishing an appropriate governance and management structure - The Penzance Neighbourhood Plan Board (PNPB) and a Project Manager - is critical to the success of the NP. The PNPB will oversee the NP's development, dissemination and community consultation and ensure that the process complies with its statutory duties."

The first task of the PNPB will be to make an application to central government for grant funding for the first stage. From there it is imperative to create a communication and engagement strategy and start the long process of getting people involved in the decisions!

I don't have a great deal left to say at this point. This is a huge task and it will go on for a long time and I'm not even sure how long that will be. I've a lot to learn about a lot of things which really excites me. I'm really looking forward to the challenge and all that is left to say is a thank you to my fellow town councillors that showed faith in me and voted me on to the board. I hope I live up to the expectations.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Glass half full and half empty, some thoughts on the big rail news

I think in this world there are pessimists and optimists but there is also the majority of us between those two poles optimistic about some things and pessimistic about others. I find myself firmly in this category with this announcement. I don't mean to pour scorn on the massive investment, it is a really good thing but my view is tempered by what we are not getting. Perhaps I want too much from our politicians and I'll never be happy?

In that vein I'll sandwich the sections of this blog with the optimistic, pessimistic and end with some optimism. My sort of compliment sandwich for the government. Firstly the really good news there will be a new 'train care center' at Penzance (or Long Rock to be more geographically correct) the present yard will be extended. There will be 60 new jobs created there. This situation has come about as the Old Oak Common train maintenance depot is closing in it's present form as part of the High Speed 2 works. Apparently the present staff will be redeployed on HS2 not relocated to Cornwall. Quite where the new workers will come from is not at the moment clear and as with lots of this what actually comes into being will not be clear until it happens. (to let my pessimism impinge a second). There is already talk of tying up education and training locally to meet this new demand. Details aside, this is brilliant news and I can't complain at it, because I would be a massive hypocrite. Time and again I have argued that we need good quality jobs in Cornwall and that industry is the key to this not simply tourism. Similarly I can not complain about the government investing in Cornwall nor Cornwall Council and the LEP investing in the west. On both counts brilliant news.

However signalling is a useful transition from the positive to the negative. It again is good news, the modernisation of the signalling system from Totnes west is long overdue. The electrification of the system will allow for more trains and for them to travel faster equaling shorter journey times and more trains and unleashing the potential of the current network. But much like so much since the advent of industrialisation, these machines as efficient and effective as they are mean less workers. I'm by no means about to out myself as a modern day Luddite, but we do have to temper the amount of new jobs as part of the Long Rock traincare center with the 40 jobs now redundant and I'd imagine the new staff that will tend the computers, will do so from outside Cornwall.

Signalling -and the reason why it is so critical in Cornwall- tells us a great deal about the ageing infrastructure of rail in Cornwall. The actual trains and how they run on the network here takes a great deal of planning and management due to two problems the amount of single track and viaducts and a combination of the two. This obviously impedes the effectiveness of the main line as trains can't pass each other and it's fairly uncommon as I understand for all but branch-lines in the UK to not be dualled.

The government is spending a large amount of money on rail travel. The obvious big ticket item (or huge ticket) is HS2 but there is also a large number of projects elsewhere. The East Coast mainline modernisation and a whole host of places will soon be served by electric trains which is a more modern method widespread on the continent as it's more fuel efficient, thus cheaper and greener to run. Dawlish, what can be said? It very much looks like there will not be a bypass there. It looks to me a bit of a trade off, we don't get a resilient storm proof trainline, but we do get signal enhancements and maintenance jobs. If so it's a risky strategy by the government gambling that the works done will safeguard the main line between Penzance and Paddington or we won;t suffer such heavy storms. I suppose what I'm getting at is that if we were to have a truly modern rail line in Cornwall, it would be dualled, storm proof and electrified. Be cheaper to run, better for the environment and quicker.

To end on a high note, the backstory to the good news especially for Penzance and West Cornwall is that it stops a number of things happening. Firstly rumours, speculation and plans that the sleeper service to London will be greatly reduced or axed altogether, will not happen. Secondly that Penzance might no longer be on the mainline and Truro be the final destination cutting off Redruth, Camborne, Hayle and St Erth as well, will not happen. Thirdly there is always the possibility that the shoreline from Eastern Green to Marazion is in danger of coastal flooding due to sea level rises or storms. There were doubts that this sea front would be defended as expressed in the Shoreline Management Plan but hopefully this now elevates the importance with the powers that be.

To conclude this is a good news, it's better than the present situation and it means things will positively happen and that some bad things can't happen. But as the title suggests the glass is both half full and half empty. We're far from an ideal rail network in Cornwall, much like the government approach (for decades) to the A30, things slowly improve but there is a lot of tinkering around problems not addressing them head on. In that case it's redesigning roundabouts and in this case it's modern signalling but in both cases it falls short of  the more expensive dualling. In an ideal world where successive governments were eager to invest in Cornwall perhaps we'd have these things but this is not an ideal world and perhaps this time we should be grateful that things are improving and not getting worse.

Credit to the various people that have made this deal happen, to be honest I'm not sure who came up with the idea. Heard various people take credit and give credit to others for it, I'd imagine it was a team effort, but unlike the word team there is a big I in politician.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Just when you think we're getting somewhere, Devonwall and South West regionalism both rear their ugly heads

You'd think things were all fine and dandy, the Cornish have recognition now, the government might just keep it's hands off Cornwall's Euro money and the Cornish Assembly campaign gathering pace. But no were dealing with Westminster so nothing is ever that simple.

Devonwall may well come back to haunt us, it seems the powers that be are still intent on redrawing parliamentary boundaries. Much like the Euro funding u turn, it's not exactly clear what is going on. With some of the ruling coalition telling us Devonwall will return and others saying it won't. So perhaps I'm scaremongering about nothing, but with this lot and their other great policy ideas, I wouldn't be surprised. I don't think it's a coincidence that people are talking about it.

On to the other lot and their "great" ideas, rebranded New Labour have rebranded their old regionalist ideas. Digging through the archives we find John Prescott promising regional powerhouses through the regional development agencies in 1998. 16 years on we now find Miliband taking a break from eating bacon sandwiches to promise pretty much the same thing as Prescott, though I reckon the latter looks most normal when eating a bacon sandwich, a sign things do change?

Rebranded and jigged the idea is now "super councils." Hard to see the detail on this one but the Welsh Assembly Government (Labour) is currently at the moment planning their own super councils aka council mergers. Hopefully this isn't being rolled out everywhere because I don't think many in Cornwall saw the creation (again by Labour and the Lib Dems) of Cornwall Council as super in any way.

LEPs are clearly something Labour is considering as Labour's Lord Adonis told the Western Morning News:

“I wouldn’t want to anticipate what would be the ideal LEP arrangement for the South West. But you’ve already got large LEP regions there and they do embrace real economic geographies. So I don’t see any reason why in principal you couldn’t have combined authorities in the South West.”

A Devonwall LEP on the cards? or perhaps I don't know maybe we could call it the South West Regional Development Agency? 

Again we find Cornwall wanting devolution and pretty broad consensus around the idea that Cornwall needs some form of devolution. Although I'm sure we could all argue about the details, but we won't ever get a chance when devolution/ localism/ regionalism is something forced on local government by central government. We need MPs in Cornwall that will convince central government that we want devolution here and that we want to decide on what terms. Or else history will repeat itself over and over again and we will see government after government rehashing Devonwall style ideas and them telling Cornwall what's good for us. Resulting in no real power being ever devolved and constant rehashing of existing bodies. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Cornwall Council in the eye of the storm of austerity

A story is doing the rounds in the press, that a Cornwall Council officer expressed the opinion that services did not need to be gold plated and that the bare minimum would do. This is the latest in the government's austerity drive, four years in and the pressure continues to fall on the smallest authorities.

Back in May the Local Government Association was warning of the consequences of all of this pressure on local councils:

Research carried out by the Local Government Association (LGA) suggests that the impact of spending reductions will start to become increasingly visible over the next two years, as councils tackle a further £10 billion cut in Government funding.
In many areas where the well of efficiency savings has run dry, councils are on the verge of a tipping point where they will not have enough money to meet all their statutory responsibilities.
Government funding given to councils to run local services will have been cut by 40 per cent by May 2015. LGA modelling, which factors in reduced funding and rising demand for adult social care, shows that money available to provide popular services like running gyms, parks, libraries and youth centres is likely to shrink by 66 per cent by the end of the decade.
Councils reaching ‘end of road' 

The key point here is statutory services, with the twin pressures of huge government cuts and a council tax freeze in the last few years by Cornwall Council, non statutory services have been hit hard. Whereas before the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat government came to power, Cornwall Council no longer provides or has greatly reduced things like public toilets, town center cctv, weed spraying, litter cleaning, public transport, upkeep of parks and a whole host of other day to day things, as well of course as thousand of jobs gone. This is because none of these things are statutory duties i.e. there is no legal obligation for the local authority to provide them. But now we are in a situation where the funds will mean that Cornwall Councillors will be faced with the choices of how to interpret statue. Expect nuanced arguments that as the quoted officer has argued that the bare minimum is within the law and services especially worryingly of health and social care will be run down.

This process will intensify and intensify and as I blogged recently all of the Westminster parties are committed to austerity. Not one of the Labour, Tory or Lib Dem leaders has ever defended local government, has ever defended the frontline of public services, or ever stated that they would like to see local government funding cuts halted or even lessened. We are in the eye of the storm, next May it is inevitable that one of the austerity parties or a combination of them, will take power and again austerity and cutting of public services will dominate. The politics of the sloping shoulders will continue and cuts won't fall hardest on Whitehall and government departments but on already hard pressed local councils....

As a postscript if you think statues will protect frontline public services and will force either local authorities or government to properly fund services to a minimum standard, you may be right but do bear in mind the Department for Communities and Local Government is doing a wholesale review on the 1294+ statutory duties...