Jumat, 06 September 2013

Welcome Cllr Steve Knightley, new councillor for Wadebridge East

Last night, Lib Dem Steve Knightley was declared the winner of the Wadebridge East by-election triggered by the resignation (again) of Collin Brewer. Steve had missed out on election back in May by just four votes and won yesterday by 9 votes.

It's a great result for an excellent local candidate. It also gives a further boost to our local MP Dan Rogerson. The Lib Dems now hold 16 of the 21 council seats in North Cornwall and this win - in Wadebridge - is in the supposed heartland of Tory PPC Scott Mann.

The result also means that the Lib Dems are now the largest single group once again on the authority. The new balance is 37 Lib Dems, 36 Independents, 30 Conservatives, 8 Labour, 6 UKIP, 4 MK and 2 others.

Whilst it was a narrow (but welcome) win for the Lib Dems, UKIP, Conservatives and Labour took a step backwards. The Tory candidate was Stephen Rushworth who was defeated in the Padstow seat he previously held back in May.

Budget consultation meeting - St Austell

Last night saw the first public meeting to discuss the council's budget for the coming year and the medium term future. It was held in St Austell and we had about 40 people present and a really good debate.

The structure of the meeting is that I give a briefing of the challenge facing the authority - the need to save an extra £23.9 million in 2014/15 and as much as £196 million over the next four years.

I also set out options available. To my mind we cannot simply chip away at services as has been done in the past. In reality, we have to make a choice about what Cornwall Council will look like in four years time - and it won't be the same as it is now. We have to choose to do a few things well and understand that there are some things we will have to stop doing altogether.

But cuts are not the only option. We can also look to increase our income through fees and charges and through higher housing numbers, more renewable energy schemes and selling our services to other organisations. But many of these are controversial issues which need proper debate. There aren't any easy answers.

So I asked what people thought was acceptable and what they thought preferable.

It was good to get such a wide range of views and ideas. Many are those we have already started to consider - but it is good to get views on these. Others were genuinely new ideas and we have undertaken to consider every idea put forward.

Some of the ideas put forward by the people last night were faster and bigger devolution to town and parish councils; ending the subsidy to Newquay Airport; cutting staff numbers and making sure those that remain are as efficient as possible; building more wind turbines; and selling council assets like offices and county farms. All of these will be considered during the budget process.

One question asked - by the current mayor of St Austell and former Cornwall councillor Steve Double - was for a guarantee that the council will retain the number of staff in the town who are currently based there.

This is a guarantee that I can't give at this stage. The policy until now has been to consolidate staff within a town (ie move them to a more efficient central office in the town and out of smaller, more expensive and less efficient offices). That's pretty non-controversial. But there is another debate that I think we must hold about whether we want to go further. I don't have any preconceptions about what the outcome will be. But I can't agree that we should close off debate on issues which could make very significant savings. What is guaranteed is that the debate will be held with local town and parish councils and local Cornwall councillors - not dictated from Truro - and that debate will be held without pre-determined outcomes.

At the end of the meeting I asked for a straw poll on attitudes to council tax levels. I asked people to indicate whether they broadly supported a council tax freeze (and the additional cuts that would be needed if we followed this path); a council tax rise of around 2% as is currently shown in the draft budget; or a rise of 5% which would require the approval of the people of Cornwall in a referendum. This would mean we would only have to make around £18 million of additional savings but it would be at the risk of harsher cuts if the referendum failed. There were 3 votes for the freeze, 15 or so votes for a 2% rise and 4 votes for the 5% rise. This was only indicative (it is not a case of the loudest voice winning through) but I will continue to ask the question at each of the meetings.

Tonight the next meeting takes place in Perranzabuloe Parish Rooms at 6.30.

Kamis, 05 September 2013

UKIP - the high tax party

The deputy leader of  UKIP on Cornwall Council has announced that he will be backing a 5% council tax rise for next year. This is more than double the council's proposed 1.97% increase and will require an expensive referendum to be held.

Cllr Harry Blakeley was speaking in a finance committee meeting yesterday when the budget proposals were being discussed.

Our draft budget - which is now open for a first round of consultation until mid-October - is proposing a 1.97% rise in council tax. The Liberal Democrats have always said that we would seek to keep council tax as low as possible and we proposed a freeze for the current year. Unfortunately, further government imposed cuts in our budget mean that we believe a small rise is necessary for next year.

The rules state, however, that any rise above 2% needs the agreement of the public in a referendum. That process itself costs almost £1 million and has to be paid for by the council - meaning less money for local services.

The referendum can only be held in May and, if not supported by the public, then the council has to send out new bills and make immediate cuts to services.

I don't think Cornwall can afford to take the risk with our services and I don't think it is right to ask hard pressed families to pay even more in council tax than the small rise we are proposing. So I think that UKIP's proposal is irresponsible. It is also particularly shocking when the party sought election on the basis of being a low tax party.

Selasa, 03 September 2013

River Kensey fenced off after sewage spill - UPDATED

The River Kensey is currently fenced off at Prior's Bridge on Riverside following a small sewage spill. The Environment Agency has taken the action to protect people and their pets who might normally venture into the water.

I am assured that the spill was small and is limited to a short stretch of the river but the decision to close off the popular area has been taken as a precaution to ensure that there is no hazard to health. It is anticipated that the riverside will be back open as usual at some point tomorrow.

In the meantime, please stay outside the orange barrier and don't allow pets to go into the river.

UPDATE: Just to reassure everyone that the area has been given the all clear and the fencing has been removed.

Cornwall Council won't be using lie detectors again (at least if I have anything to do with it)

Earlier this year there was a storm when it was revealed that Cornwall Council was employing a company to use lie-detector technology as part of a review of people claiming the single person council tax discount.

Whilst it is perfectly right and proper that we should make sure that no one is claiming a discount to which they are not entitled, I objected strongly to the use of such invasive technology which was being used without the knowledge of the resident. I was not alone in my objections but the then Conservative Leader of the Council went ahead anyway.

Today I was asked a question at full council about future use and I gave a guarantee that any decision to use such technology in the future would be the subject of a vote of all councillors. But I won't be bringing such a proposal forward and, if one does emerge, I will be voting against it.

UPDATE: Press coverage of the issue

Cornwall Council takes action against payday loan companies

Cornwall Council is taking action to stop the promotion of payday loan companies after an announcement at today's full council meeting.

Leader John Pollard announced that we would stop allowing advertising of high interest loan companies in bus shelters owned by the council and that we would write to bus companies, other bus shelter owners and the owners of billboards in Cornwall to ask them to do likewise.

We also recognise that people use Cornwall Council owned computers to access the sites of such companies. We will take action to block such sites from staff computers and also investigate if we can do the same for our public access computers in libraries.

Instead, we will promote the credit union which offers a lower cost borrowing facility.

I don't like being over-regulatory. But I think that high interest 'payday' loans can be very damaging to individuals and their families and that we should be seeking to promote local lower cost solutions instead. I've had a number of conversations with colleagues at Plymouth City Council who have done this already and I think their work is worth copying.

Senin, 02 September 2013

Cornwall's budget - briefing members and staff

Today I have been briefing fellow councillors and the authority's staff on the budget for the next financial year.

Cornwall faces some pretty huge challenges. We have to make savings of £23.9 million next year in addition to those which were already agreed of £19 million.

And we have to save approximately £196 million by the end of 2018/19 - four years away. (This number depends on various government decisions and so will vary a bit, but probably not massively).

We can't pretend that we can make all those savings just by trimming services a bit. So called 'salami slicing' will trim services until they are virtually worthless. Nor can we pretend that we can solve the problem by paying officers a bit less, by cutting the number of councillors or by cutting waste. Of course we will cut waste wherever we find it. And we can debate cuts to councillor numbers or officer pay. But between them they won't save more than 1-2% of the amount needed.

Instead, we are asking the people of Cornwall to decide what they want their council to look like in four years time. We can try to preserve the services that people think are most valuable, but that will be at the expense of other services changing out of all recognition or being cut completely. We want the people of Cornwall to tell us what our priorities should be.

We have published a first draft budget based on a 2% council tax rise. Given the new cuts passed down by the government over the last 12 months, that is what the cabinet thinks is the right balance. But we are open to suggestions both as to the right level of council tax and where the initial cuts should be made.

More details of the savings proposed are being published and debated over the next few weeks. You can have your say by attending one of 19 public meetings being held in every part of Cornwall.

In the meantime, I have also recorded a video for the council's staff and we are asking for their ideas as well.

This is what my Launceston colleague Jade Farrington has written on her facebook page:

The first draft of next year's budget was presented to Cornwall Councillors today. Officers and cabinet members stressed that it's exactly that - a first draft - and made it clear they were open to alternative suggestions as to how money can be raised and saved.

Cornwall Council's grant from central government has been massively reduced and the people of the duchy are faced with finding cuts of £196 million by 2018/19. When you consider that the council's entire net revenue budget is just over £525 million you can see the scale of it. We're talking about serious cuts and an end to some very valuable services. Cornwall Council can't avert this as local authorities legally have to balance their budgets. The only way it could do that and keep services at current levels is to put your council tax up by more than 20%. I haven't met anyone who wants that to happen and a rise of more than 2% would require a referendum of everyone in Cornwall. That referendum would not be won and it would cost the council up to £1 million to run it, meaning an extra £1 million of cuts would follow the inevitable "no" vote.

This all equates to £24 million less for services in the next financial year, assuming a council tax rise of just under the 2% threshold. If the authority freezes council tax then there will be around £1 million more cuts.

Understandably people are finding these huge figures hard to grasp. Lots have suggested cutting the pay of top council staff (some of whom receive six figure salaries) and councillors (who get just over £12,000). To put this in perspective, that would save around 1% of the total the council is being forced to cut.

Lots of people would also like to see the council charge more council tax to second home owners. Unfortunately the council is legally charging them all it can and is incredibly constrained by central government. Unbelievably, the council has 1,300 statutory duties as set out in edicts from Westminster. This means Cornwall Council has 1,300 things it has to spend your tax on, regardless of whether councillors or local people think they're a good idea.

This all makes for quite depressing reading, but everyone needs to be aware of what is coming. Some services you rely on may not exist in a year's time, so if you care then you need to make sure you make your case. The cabinet member for finance, Alex Folkes - Cornwall Councillor for Launceston Central, has organised 19 public meetings to give you the chance to tell him which services you would like to see protected and those you would (reluctantly or otherwise) be willing to see reduced or axed altogether. Arguing that all services must be protected simply isn't an option, for the reasons I've just outlined.

I know Alex is genuinely interested to hear your ideas, so please take 90 minutes of your evening on Wednesday, September 11th to go along to Launceston Town Hall at 6.30pm and have your say. Please share this poster to make others aware and start thinking about what you would like to protect and how we can raise the money needed to do that.