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Archives for October 2011

Empty homes or empty promises?

Graham Smith | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 28 October 2011

A short time ago I blogged about Cornwall Council's promise to use its powers of compulsory purchase to help deal with some of the county's 4,000 empty homes. So I was puzzled to find no mention of this exciting new policy in the draft budget, due to be presented to the full council next month. Here's the answer:

"There is no specific sum allocated for funding the compulsory purchase of homes - it is part of our overall strategy for bringing empty homes back into use and provide more affordable housing. Compulsory purchase would be the last resort and the funding for doing this would come from the £1.9m new homes bonus."
Cornwall's councils have had powers of compulsory purchase for many years - and have never, ever, used them. I've made a note to ask again, in 12 months, to find out how many of those 4,000 empty homes have been brought back into use.

The tortoise and the judge

Graham Smith | 13:26 UK time, Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I wonder what Judge Graham Cottle would advise Cornwall Council?

Cornwall Council by-elections

Graham Smith | 08:30 UK time, Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Two upcoming opportunities for voters to express an opinion on County Hall performance and associated issues. In Wendron ward, near Helston, polling will be on 24th November; nominations close 2nd November. Voters in Bude go to the polls tomorrow (Thursday).

Ask me another

Graham Smith | 17:12 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011

Now here's an interesting thing. I asked this question:

"How often, if ever, has Cornwall Council started proceedings against anyone for starting work on a project without formal planning approval?"
And got this answer:
"The Council did not start work on constructing the access road to the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre without planning permission. A planning consent can be implemented as soon as a developer has complied with any pre commencement planning conditions relating to the application. In the case of the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre the application was granted planning permission by the Secretary of State on 19 May 2011. A letter confirming that the Council and SITA had complied with all the pre commencement planning conditions relating to the phase 1 works as set out by the Secretary of State in his appeal decision was sent out by the planning authority on 21 September 2011. As a result the Council was legally entitled to implement the consent in relation to phase 1 works from that date. The construction of the access and haul roads for the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre, which began on 26 September, formed part of these phase 1 works."

Spot the difference

Graham Smith | 16:44 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011

From a Royal Cornwall Hospitals' Trust statement, about 15 minutes ago:

Following advice from clinicians and managers it has been decided to temporally defer the opening of Medical Ward 1 at West Cornwall. The original plan was to open the ward from 5th November following a programme of refurbishment during the summer.

Dr Paul Upton, Medical Director for RCHT, said: ""As we move into the winter months we expect increasing pressure on our medical beds. An extra medical ward has already been opened on the Treliske site to ensure we can continue to provide a safe and quality service to our patients."

From "Yes, Minister," 23 February 1981

[Discussing the opening up of St. Edward's hospital]

Sir Ian Whitchurch: "First of all, you have to sort out the smooth running of the hospital. Having patients around would be no help at all."
Sir Humphrey: "They just be in the way."

The politics of waste disposal

Graham Smith | 12:33 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011

An interesting blog post from Cornwall councillor Dick Cole on the subject of last week's High Court melt-down of the corporate team's incinerator policy, and what he sees as the bullying of St Dennis. Suggestions, please, for alternative sites: The proposed stadium site at Threemilestone? Feock? Mylor yacht club? County Hall car park?

Finally, councillors talk tortoise

Graham Smith | 12:31 UK time, Monday, 17 October 2011

Tomorrow's meeting of Cornwall Council should hear this question from councillor Chris Pascoe:

"I would hope that the Council will ask central Government to clarify and amend the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act to prevent the anomaly of the Tortoise Sanctuary requiring a license. I also understand that it is the Cabinet's job to interpret this law so can there be a rethink on its interpretation so that we are not made to look so foolish in the eyes of the public? Instead of saying 'wild' animals, we could use the term 'dangerous' wild animals."
This is the first time that elected members, in any formal sense, will have had the opportunity to discuss something which has seen the council ridiculed in the national media and brought some extremely unpleasant emails into the inbox of the responsible Cabinet member, Lance Kennedy. If ever there was an issue which better demonstrated the marginalisation of councillors, and questioned their relevance to the running of County Hall, I'd like to know what it is.

Why the workers downed tools and left

Graham Smith | 11:08 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

One of the most telling images from St Dennis yesterday was that of construction workers leaving the site, following the High Court verdict that there was no valid planning permission for the waste incinerator.

Back in July I asked Cornwall Council cabinet member Julian German and Corporate Director for the Environment, Tom Flanagan, why work was starting ahead of the formal approval notice. They said that in view of the cost of delays (£1million per month in landfill and haulage costs) it was a risk worth taking. Work on clearing the site and building the access road started a few days later. Strangely, neither Julian nor Tom had anything to say yesterday.

But Cornwall Council's own website offers this helpful advice on the risks associated with jumping the gun:

"It is a criminal offence...this applies to those who carry out the works as well as those who order them to be done. Proceedings can be taken for the offence which can result in a large fine and/or imprisonment."

And the prosecuting authority? That would be Cornwall Council.

We must have been hacked

Graham Smith | 08:43 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

Today's Guardian.

Up in smoke

Graham Smith | 12:52 UK time, Thursday, 13 October 2011

Newsflash - Anti-incinerator campaigners have won their legal challenge. Plans for £117million project in disarray. Listen to BBC Radio Cornwall for more details as they come in.

STOP PRESS - This from County Hall:

"Statement re CERC appeal

13 October 2011

The judgement of the High Court to uphold the legal challenge against the Secretary of State's decision to grant planning permission for the Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre is extremely disappointing.

The decision by the Secretary of State to grant permission for the CERC was taken after considering the findings of a comprehensive planning process, including a robust public inquiry, and the subsequent report from the Planning Inspector. We understand that the Treasury Solicitor, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, has been granted leave to appeal.

The Council will be pressing for an early resolution as further delays will not only extend uncertainty over this process but could prove financially disastrous for people in Cornwall.

While it is not possible to accurately predict how long this issue will take to resolve, each month's delay costs the Council around £1m in landfill tax and haulage costs - creating serious implications for the Council's budget. This means a delay of up to six months would cost the Council at least £6 million - the equivalent of providing 400,000 hours of care for vulnerable people living at home, funding all the Council's community leisure facilities, keeping the streets of Cornwall clean for twelve months or repairing potholes and treating roads during the coming winter months. It would also be the equivalent of increasing council tax by 5%.

As a result of these additional pressures on the waste budget the Council will be meeting with SITA over the next few weeks to identify a series of interim measures to reduce costs and services throughout Cornwall.

We will now be considering the issues which have been highlighted by this decision in detail.


Note to editors

Please note that the Council is not doing interviews on this issue."

(Er, Didn't the elected council members vote to refuse planning consent? - Ed)

Keeping faith

Graham Smith | 08:47 UK time, Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Yesterday's news that the government has approved St Michael's Catholic School as Cornwall's first Free School generally missed this footnote to the Department for Education's press release:

"The groups will now work to make their schools a reality. This includes undertaking a statutory consultation in their local area and taking steps to recruit their school's Principal Designate. Capital funding for these projects is still to be decided."
So not quite the done deal that first met the eye. St Michael's is due to open as a Free School in September next year.

It happens

Graham Smith | 12:21 UK time, Tuesday, 11 October 2011

As Peninsula Community Health CIC gets into its second week, here's a cautionary tale from Surrey. Assura Medical is majority-owned by Virgin. Privatisation of the National Health Service? Perish the thought!

Number 4, with a bullet

Graham Smith | 07:53 UK time, Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Not sure if this is the sort of league table that County Hall will want to publicise, but the Local Government Association has just published data showing that Cornwall Council ranks 4th in the list of authorities which has shed workers - 2,295 (15.2%) in 2010/11. Only Kent, Manchester and Norfolk got rid of more staff.

A penny for your thoughts

Graham Smith | 18:19 UK time, Monday, 10 October 2011

I'd be disappointed if, as a result of my previous post, some smarty-pants councillor didn't ask how many of Cornwall's journalists had read the budget. And so at the risk of making myself appear to be a smarty-pants too, I have to raise my hand...

One eye-catching piece of information which has escaped the council's official press release concerns council tax:

"The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced on 3 October 2011 that new support for local authorities to help them freeze council tax would be available for 2012/13. However, the release from HM Treasury states that it will be "a one-off grant equivalent to a 2½% council tax increase" that will be payable if council tax is frozen. This means that if the grant is accepted by the authority and council tax frozen the Council will have sufficient funding in 2012/13, but that in 2013/14 there will be a funding shortfall of circa £6m and therefore the council will have to implement service cuts to an equivalent sum or to raise council tax by 5%."
Council tax up 5%? Budget cuts of £6M? Probably not, but it means a political battle with the government to allow George Osborne's conference present to be spread over the four-year council budget, and to escape punitive capping of any subsequent increases in council tax.

The budget also proposes giving £150,000 of council tax payers' cash to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership "subject to the outcome of the review of the Economic Development Service and Cornwall Development Company not identifying an equal level of savings." Good luck there. I can't wait to see how much money the private sector is putting in to this quango, which of course is meant to be led by the private-sector.

There's a proposal aimed at fixing the entertaining car park farce which was a feature of last year's budget.

"The car park service income budget is reduced by £2.468m with 50% being met corporately and the remainder being met from savings from the Environment, Planning and Economy Directorate budget."

Some parts of the budget take an optimistic view of how the European Union might regard ideas such as the much-trumpeted £700,000 replacement for the Education Maintenance Allowance, or however much it might cost to dual the A30 at Temple.

A traditional, fundamental tenet of all EU funding is that the Euros should not be used for things which domestic governments ought properly to be doing themselves. And so while the European Social Fund, for example, might allow Convergence funds to be used for "skills and training" I will be fascinated to see how Brussels views its use as a replacement for a politically-inspired, and very recent, cut such as the abolition of EMA.

And if dualling the A30 at Temple was as simple as "de-trunking" then I do wonder why it hasn't been done before.

The budget also assumes a small income from solar collectors, of £25,000 rising to £100,000 over three years. Fingers crossed for good weather.

I'm sure that those council staff who lost jobs or saw their working conditions worsened over the past year will be thrilled at news of the 2010/11 £7million budget underspend. The author of the budget report can't quite believe his luck:

"This was a major achievement and was delivered without protest or strike action."
At least the staff can now look forward to incremental pay rises being restored next year, although the long-term future looks slightly less rosy: "In the longer term it is still planned to move towards a contribution related pay scheme for all employees linked to performance with a likely implementation date of 2013/14."

Performance-related pay for all council staff? Or just those on the fourth floor?

You can read the full budget document, and its appendixes, here.

How many councillors does it take to change a light bulb?

Graham Smith | 18:18 UK time, Monday, 10 October 2011

The budget process at County Hall is, of course, all over bar the shouting. Decisions were taken by a handful of people, in secret, in Star Chambers, and will be rubber-stamped by the Cornwall Council Cabinet on Wednesday. Next month, the full council will devote the best part of a day to a completely pointless debate. If last year's budget debate is anything to go by, about 20 per cent of councillors won't even bother to turn up. So in an attempt to make it interesting, I invite comments on the following odds:

How many councillors will actually read the budget document?

Fewer than 10: evens
10-20: 6/4
20-60: 11/2
60-100: 33/1
100-122: 100/1
All 123: 500/1

Theresa May couldn't make it up

Graham Smith | 18:15 UK time, Monday, 10 October 2011

On 6th September Cornwall Council passed a resolution demanding that a "strong delegation" be sent to visit Home Secretary Theresa May to demand all kinds of reviews, including one examining the case for a uniquely Cornish police force. I've been trying to find out who is to be on this "strong delegation" (and even more fun - who was considered, but then left off) and when it is to embark on its mission. The silence from County Hall suggests that the "strong delegation" isn't making quite the progress that members had hoped for.

Why do you read this blog?

Graham Smith | 15:54 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011

As a relative newcomer to blogging (about 18 months now) I am still learning new gadgets. I recently came across Google Analytics, which tells me how many readers I have, and - very roughly - where they come from.

The gadget tells me how many pages have been viewed, which kind of internet browser was used, whether readers arrived dreckly or via a search engine, and how long was spent on the site. I think that, technically, "reader" simply means "unique computer terminal" but it's good enough for me.

So I have now learned that this blog today has 1,969 "absolutely unique visitors" from almost every continent on the planet. Apparently I even have one reader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Hi! Thanks for reading.) Provided the number of unique readers continues to increase, I'll report occasional updates. If it declines, I'll say no more about it.

Despite the wizardry, Google Analytics cannot tell me how many of this blog's readers are from Cornwall - although the vast majority are from within the UK. As part of my commitment to improving quality etc etc, I would welcome your thoughts about why anybody would read this blog. (I'm particularly curious if you're the guy in the DRC.)

Tortoise reality abhors a political vacuum

Graham Smith | 10:04 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

I've always thought that the test of whether a law is good or bad is the extent to which it copes with harmless eccentrics. And by this yardstick, I have no hesitation in condemning the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act as a bad law.

Last week's over-excited headlines about the closure of Sticker's Tortoise Garden missed the slightly important point that this reliable source of amusement closes to the public at the end of September every year, as many of the tortoises bed-down for the winter.

For the sake of clarity - and because lawyers care what I write - I should make it clear that I am not describing the owner of the tortoise sanctuary, Joy Bloor, as eccentric. But since she has devoted the past 20 years of her life to caring for tortoises, I think I can safely describe her as harmless.

Without the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act, which (lest we forget) was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's first government, Daily Mail readers would not have been so easily incited to send some truly offensive letters to Cornwall Council's Lance Kennedy, who I also believe to be harmless and, in the case of Sticker's tortoises, more sinned-against than sinning.

As I have blogged previously, the 1981 Act provides a partial schedule of animals which should be considered (my emphasis) for licensing. It says nothing about tortoises, but clearly devolves responsibility for interpretation of the law to local authorities. This is why, for two decades, the former Restormel Borough Council stoically ignored invitations from the Born Free Foundation to investigate.

Over the past year I have received a number of emails from Defra confirming, in plain English, that Cornwall Council has absolute discretion in the matter of whether or not the Sticker Tortoise Garden is a zoo. I have forwarded a copy of the most recent Defra email to the council, who I have challenged to produce any correspondence from Defra which, in plain English, would force it to act one way or another.

The real problem with poorly drafted legislation is that no-one knows what to do. Everyone wants to do the best and be seen to fair, and so they summon professors and lawyers and seek the best possible advice from professional experts. And the trouble with this approach is that it leaves no room for politicians, who are left giggling or shouting on the sidelines when they should actually be centre-stage and taking responsibility.

More often than not, the professional experts are absolutely right and save the politicians from themselves. Without their official wisdom and advice, the politicians would make even bigger fools of themselves and quite possibly end up in jail.

But the question of whether or not tortoises belong in a zoo is actually a political question - the answer dependent upon your view of animal rights and plain common sense.

What would happen if Cornwall Council simply followed the example set by Restormel? What would happen if Cornwall Council challenged Defra to prosecute it for failing to enforce the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act? The answer, I suspect, is nothing at all - until Defra updated its discredited law and clarified the difference between a zoo and an animal sanctuary.

I find it bizarre that Sticker's Tortoise Garden could have generated so many acres of newsprint, mostly highly damaging to the council's reputation and at considerable cost to taxpayers, without once coming before any kind of council committee for debate.

And that's why I hope the council's Miscellaneous Licensing Committee, having temporarily run out of lap dancing clubs and sex shops to investigate, could provide us with even more fun by having Sticker's tortoises on the agenda for its next meeting.

Camelford sports centre running out of time

Graham Smith | 08:22 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Tomorrow's meeting of Cornwall Council's Communities Overview & Scrutiny Committee is being asked to endorse a new "strategy for leisure" which, as we know, involves transferring county-owned sports centres to a new not-for-profit Trust.

A crucial question, which I'm sure will be asked at tomorrow's meeting, is whether or not the trust's business plan will include the sports centre at Camelford beyond the end of March 2012. A similar committee meeting last week voted 8-2 to recommend that Camelford should be included - but it is by no means certain that this view will prevail over the longer-term.

The decision on whether or not council tax payers continue to subsidise Camelford will effectively be taken, in secret, at one of the "Star Chamber" meetings involving only Cabinet members and senior officers. A rubber stamp will be applied at the scheduled Cabinet meeting next week.

There is no doubt that the Camelford sports centre is under-used, despite the great efforts made to increase membership in recent months. The facts of geography will not change and I don't see what anyone in Camelford can do to further increase the numbers. I'm not surprised that some County Hall cynics are now saying that the "use it or lose it" slogan which accompanied last year's council bail-out always had the feel of empty political rhetoric about it.

Our friends in the north

Graham Smith | 08:43 UK time, Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A fascinating Cornwall Council by-election at Bude North and Stratton on 27th October. There are Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent candidates, contesting the seat formerly held by Lib Dem Nathan Bale. The next full round of Cornwall Council elections is in May 2013.

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