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Archives for March 2012

A long time in politics

Graham Smith | 13:38 UK time, Saturday, 31 March 2012

A week which started badly for the Conservatives, and which then got worse, and which then saw all three of the main political parties humiliated in Bradford West, ends with that megaphone for revolutionary socialism The Daily Mail offering us this thought:

"...the humble Cornish pasty has become a powerful symbol of class struggle. Absurdly, Mr Cameron felt obliged to respond by proclaiming his affection for pasties. Sadly for his credibility, the shop where he claimed he had bought a pasty most recently closed five years ago."
Without wishing any harm to any West Country Member of Parliament, a by-election right here, right now, would be huge fun.

When George Galloway spoke for Devon

Graham Smith | 14:14 UK time, Friday, 30 March 2012

Congratulations to the new Member of Parliament for Bradford West, whose by-election victory last night reminded me of my attempts to find out more about the very strange death of an East Devon helicopter pilot in Latin America more than 20 years ago. Only one MP took much interest, raising the issue in Parliament and taking the time and trouble to make inquiries at the Foreign Office and do media interviews. George might not be universally popular at Westminster or Whitehall. But as the voters of West Bradford have declared, this might not be a bad thing.

A fair cop

Graham Smith | 15:06 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Devon & Cornwall Police Freedom of Information disclosure log is a mine of fascinating data. This answer, posted a few weeks ago, provides details of police officers and civilian staff who have been disciplined for inappropriate use of computers - from shopping and social networking to gambling and porn - and even details of the top 50 sites. I'm pleased to report that is among them.

Don't mention the stadium

Graham Smith | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2012

I see that the agenda for next week's meeting of Cornwall's Environment & Economy Overview & Scrutiny committee has nothing to report about the proposed stadium, which regular readers might think is a bit surprising given that until recently the 4th Floor had been keen to implement its policy by the end of this month. But property developers Inox haven't disappeared from the scene completely. The following day, Strategic Planning considers the Inox application for 1,500 homes on the adjacent site.

Cornwall waste incinerator back on

Graham Smith | 10:17 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2012

From the Press Association: The Government won a Court of Appeal challenge today against a ruling which quashed its decision to grant planning permission for a £117 million waste incinerator project in Cornwall.

Onward Christian soldiers

Graham Smith | 06:22 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2012

A couple of stories in recent days could test the theories about mixing religion and politics:

No-one who knows South West Devon MP Gary Streeter would doubt the sincerity of his religious convictions or question why he chairs the all-party group Christians in Parliament. So his intervention in the dispute over who should get the credit for saving the life (or should that be restoring the life?) of footballer Fabrice Muamba is very interesting, particularly given that Gary quotes his own 1983 "miracle cure" for a sore hand.

The second story concerns Cornwall Council's decision on Tuesday to restore an act of Christian worship to the agenda of its meetings, on the grounds that a Secretary of State carries more clout than a High Court judge. Secularists are not happy about this and are considering the legal position. As one councillor put it: "God has many mansions. But Cornwall Council chamber is not one of them."

Incinerator Appeal Court verdict expected tomorrow

Graham Smith | 12:54 UK time, Wednesday, 28 March 2012

9.30am in Court 63 at the High Court, apparently. The folk of St Dennis await their fate.

Lib Dems prepare to do battle (with themselves) over Police Commissioner contest

Graham Smith | 15:26 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Devon and Cornwall's Liberal Democrats are to meet in Plymouth on Saturday 12th May to decide whether or not to field a candidate for November's Police Commissioner election. The special conference has the power to overturn the ruling of the regional executive. As far as I'm aware, this is the only region (so far) to challenge the national party policy on this issue.

Information Commission backs council on tax disclosure

Graham Smith | 13:44 UK time, Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Information Commission has just emailed me its ruling about whether Cornwall Council was right to keep secret the identities of those councillors who had to be taken to court for non-payment of council tax. The Commission rules in favour of the council, and against me.
The full ruling is here: FS50410847.pdf

Of particular interest, in my humble opinion, is the decision in relation to where information was held in magistrates' court records:

"...Access to court records is made via application to the court and is at the discretion of the judge who will consider whether disclosure is necessary to ensure that justice is seen to be done. The factors that a public authority must consider when deciding whether disclosure under the FOIA would breach the first data protection principle are different....
"It was recognised that data is disclosed in court and could be reported....... However, it concluded that later disclosure would be unfair practice public knowledge of the issues is only short lived and may be limited to only a small number of people. Even where cases are reported in newspapers this does not lead to the establishment of a comprehensive, searchable database of offenders."

I need to speak to my BBC bosses about whether to pursue an appeal - but my immediate reaction is that 21st century technology has already moved us well beyond a situation where cases are merely reported in newspapers. The "establishment of a comprehensive, searchable database" is only a few search engines away.

Famous for 15 minutes

Graham Smith | 15:25 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

Hard not to feel sorry for Schmallenberg, the town in Germany now better known for giving its name to a virus which causes foetal abnormalities in sheep, cattle and goats. It seems to have dropped out of the headlines in recent weeks, but thanks to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency I can today report that the current "score" attributed to this midge-carried virus is Cornwall 1, Devon 6, Somerset 3 and Dorset 4. That's a total of 14 farms across the West Country. I don't known how many lambs and would be interested to know if any government agency is keeping count.

Absence of evidence and evidence of absence

Graham Smith | 11:52 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

From the Devon and Cornwall police Freedom of Information disclosure log:

The Equality & Diversity and Professional Standards Departments have provided the
following information:

Do the Police maintain a workforce profile and, if so:
a) is Cornish a category of self-identification within this workforce profile
b) what are the returns.

Devon and Cornwall Police publish the results of its annual staff census, see link below:

Cornish is not used as a category of self identification.

In recording the backgrounds of wrongdoers do the Police gather ethnic identifications for Cornish, in order to understand, as they try to do with other groups, if there are general circumstances or attitudes that translate into certain behaviours.

Details of Devon and Cornwall Police's ethnic monitoring procedures are published on the website (see link below). Cornish is not option within either the Self Defined Ethnicity Codings or the Descriptive Ethnicity Codes


Lastly, what cases of prejudice towards Cornish people, either internally or in handling incidents, have come to light in the past 5 years, and what has been done about them?

The Professional Standards Department have checked the Complaint and Conduct cases in relation to Discrimination by Race or Other, since 01/01/2007 and have found no allegations that specifically mention discrimination against Cornish people.

Neighbourhood watch

Graham Smith | 10:46 UK time, Monday, 26 March 2012

From the official Devon and Cornwall police helicopter blog:

"At approximately 6:20pm local officers in Sidmouth were called to deal with four suspicious people on The Byes Path. The individuals were suspected of committing various offences and made off from officers on foot. The helicopter attended and located one male hiding in bushes near to, but out of sight of, officers on the ground. This man, along with three others, were arrested for various offences."
Roughly translated into a headline for the Daily Mail:
"Police helicopter scrambled to catch foursome spotted engaging in sexual activity at seaside beauty spot (at least one was wearing handcuffs already.)"
The Devon and Cornwall police helicopter costs £1.6m/year.

Can't buy me love

Graham Smith | 11:18 UK time, Sunday, 25 March 2012

Congratulations to the Sunday Times for today's scoop about cash-for-access and the chance to lobby the Prime Minister. What makes the story outstanding is the secret footage of (now resigned) Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas talking about what you get for your money.

But the basic menu-with-prices is, and has been for years, on the Conservative Party website: Party Patrons, from £50/month, The Front Bench Club (£5,000/year) and so on, all the way through to the Leader's Group (£50,000/year.)

I have to say I don't see anything really new in any of this, except the breathtaking audacity of the fundraising. I remember attending a Labour Party conference once where the soon-to-collapse US energy company Enron was sponsoring a function. Enron was later allowed to take over Wessex Water, without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. There was the inevitable five-minute-scandal, with the Conservatives demanding an inquiry.

The rest is history - and history repeats itself, over and over. Sometimes, with party political funding stories, I struggle to distinguish between farce and tragedy. Only last year the Committee for Standards in Public Life said political parties should get an extra £23m of taxpayers' money to reduce reliance on "big money" donations. It also recommended a £10,000 annual cap on individual donations from 2015. At present there are no limits on donations, but the name of anyone who gives more than £7,500 to a party is made public.

The future is unwritten

Graham Smith | 10:43 UK time, Sunday, 25 March 2012

One of the joys of being a re-located reporter is getting to know the new patch. And one of the first things I've learned about the Torbay area of South Devon is that it is the place to be for all things concerning Agathie Christie.

The doyenne of crime writers and murder mysteries is celebrated everywhere. There's an Agatha walk which includes an exhibition at the Torquay museum; the Agatha Christie bronze bust in Cary Gardens near the harbour; Princess Gardens; the 12th century Torre Abbey opposite Torquay's main beach; and, finally, the Grand Hotel, where the crimewriter spent her honeymoon.

Devon boasts a large number of authors whose works graced my bookshelves when I was a child: Henry Williamson (Tarka the Otter), RD Blackmore (Lorna Doone) and (temporarily) Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes adventure involving The Hound of the Baskervilles involved research at Princetown on Dartmoor.

Perhaps when I was young I simply read the wrong books, but I'm struggling to think of ways in which Cornwall promotes a similarly rich literary heritage: there's Daphne du Maurier, of course, and the festival now held in her name has become an annual cultural highlight. Winston Graham (Poldark.) And David Cornwell (John le Carre, chronicler of Cold War espionage) surely deserves his place on any bookshelf.

I was disappointed, on a recent trip to the Tinner's Arms at Zennor, to discover that no-one there could tell me anything about D.H. Lawrence's stay there during the first world war. Lawrence lived at the pub, working on Women In Love, before later renting a local cottage. Locals thought that Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, were spies and police advised them to leave Cornwall.

Chiefs and indians

Graham Smith | 12:46 UK time, Saturday, 24 March 2012

I've compiled this league table to demonstrate the cost-per-head of our council chief executives.

Council_______Chief executive salary________Population___________Cost-per-head

Torbay................... £151,316................................134,300............................£1.13
Devon County..........£157,000................................749,900................................21p

Of course Devon County's council taxpayers also pay for senior officers at their district councils. Some of these share chief executives so direct comparisons are not possible. Mid Devon council does not share and the additional chief executive there costs an extra £95,000-£100,000. With a district population of only 76,100, this brings the total cost-per-head for residents in that part of Devon to about £1.52. Are council services in Mid Devon really four times better than those in Cornwall? As I have blogged previously, the heaviest cost-per-head burden is that carried on the Isles of Scilly.

A union made in heaven

Graham Smith | 12:50 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

Click on the website of Conservative Home and you get this advert, from the Coalition for Marriage, whose mission is to torpedo government proposals to allow gay weddings. Red Badge of Courage, therefore, to Totnes Tory MP Sarah Woolaston for blogging her support for same sex marriages - an opinion which I suspect might not be universally popular throughout her local association.

Once a year is ample

Graham Smith | 12:40 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

As I'm sure you already knew, the week of 15-21 October will be European Local Democracy Week. I shall leave it to you to consider what happens to local democracy the rest of the year.

Torbay Council, which I had not previously thought of as an uber-enthusiast for all things European, is doing its bit to promote Local Democracy Week by publishing a wide range of helpful facts, figures and contacts - and for lazy journalists like myself, a press release. In French. It might be a few months before I'm able to report more.

The writing's on the wall

Graham Smith | 12:07 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

The idea that government can be better informed by e-petitions had me checking to see how enthusiastic are the citizens of Torbay for this very 21st century form of democracy. Only three such petitions have been attempted since the invention of the internet, the most popular being one asking Father Christmas for more bank holidays (322 supporters.) The least popular, and this is possibly a national record, is the petition to Torbay Council complaining about excessive vehicle noise. Total number of supporters: nil.

Pasty tax e-petition

Graham Smith | 11:08 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

I'm not sure which is funnier - the revelation that George Osborne does not pay higher-rate tax or the furious political fire-storm which has erupted over the pasty tax. There is an excellent analysis of how this extension of VAT will hit an important industry in Devon and Cornwall in Business Cornwall today. The anti-tax campaign swept through Twitter and Facebook in less than 24 hours and now enjoys the status of an e-gov petition. The answer is obvious. The pasty industry should simply hire Mr Osborne's accountants - and their tax problems will disappear.

The flogging will continue until morale improves

Graham Smith | 10:08 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

I applaud the Peninsula Community Health CIC for having the confidence to publish its board minutes. It looks as if January's meeting, which heard the outline results of a staff survey, might have raised a few eyebrows. On page 7:

"Paul Masters was keen to ensure we feedback to our staff on "you said, we did". He expressed his concern about those who reported having received physical violence from their manager."
I have asked for more details.
UPDATE: Many thanks to PCH chief exec Kevin Baber for returning my call, almost immediately, to explain. The physical violence flagged in the staff survey was 1% of all responses, in line with NHS staff surveys nationally. The survey was anonymous so he has no further details. There was one incident of violence in the past year, which was reported to management, which resulted in disciplinary action.

The pasty tax revolt

Graham Smith | 12:56 UK time, Thursday, 22 March 2012

Budgets usually don't sound so good on Day Two, and so it's proving with the discovery that yesterday's announcement of measures by the Office of Tax Simplification to end VAT anomalies is today branded The Great Pasty Tax Swindle (#pastytax on Twitter everywhere.) Funnily enough the idea of a tax on Cornish pasties did not feature in a recent ComRes poll designed to identify the most unpopular taxes in Britain today. Of course, it's not really a tax on pasties specifically - it's just VAT, extended, and catching pasties in its net. I wonder how many of those Cornish MPs who today are working themselves into a frenzy in defence of the pasty remember voting to increase VAT to 20%? And will they now vote against the budget?

Regional pay differences in the public sector

Graham Smith | 17:32 UK time, Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I've been trying to find out if the coalition government plans to tear up national pay and conditions in the public sector, introducing regional differentials to more closely reflect local market rates, will apply to Members of Parliament. Should an MP in the South East earn more than one from the South West?

I'm grateful to St Austell & Newquay MP Stephen Gilbert for cheekily tweeting his thoughts during the Chancellor's budget speech today:

"Doesn't think localising public sector pay is the way forward - don't want a race to bottom."

The government believes national pay deals distort local market conditions and stifle competition. But according to the TUC the coalition's proposals would have a particularly severe impact on the economy of Devon and Cornwall. I should declare an interest: the BBC is part of the public sector and is currently signed up to national agreements which ensure that a reporter in Devon or Cornwall gets paid the same as one doing an identical job in Surrey or Hampshire.

It's a funny old world

Graham Smith | 11:30 UK time, Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Public Whip website is great fun and a real eye-opener for anyone who cast their vote at the last general election expecting to get their voice reflected in Parliament. For example Totnes Tory MP Sarah Woolaston has voted against her Conservative colleagues on no fewer than 12 occasions, giving her a "rebel" status of 2.9%. By contrast North Devon Liberal Democrat Nick Harvey, now enjoying the trappings of office as Minister of State for the Armed Forces, has voted against the coalition government only once ("rebel" status 0.3%) - and that was on the subject of sustainable livestock.

Adrian and Andrew to escape the doctors' challenge

Graham Smith | 11:03 UK time, Sunday, 18 March 2012

Today's news that a group of 240 doctors are so angry about Liberal Democrat support for changes to the National Health Service that they plan to field candidates against some Lib Dem MPs at the next election had me checking the record to see who risks such a challenge. It looks as if Torbay's Adrian Sanders and Andrew George of St Ives were the only Lib Dem MPs in Devon and Cornwall to defy their party whips and vote against the coalition government.

The open and transparent scrutiny of Cornwall's stadium project

Graham Smith | 15:31 UK time, Saturday, 17 March 2012

It looks as if any members of Cornwall Council who were hoping that next week's Cabinet meeting would shed more light on plans for a sports stadium at Threemilestone must wait a bit longer. As this confidential document makes clear, the issue should have been discussed next Wednesday with a "target implementation date" of the end of March.

Strange then that the stadium now doesn't appear on the agenda for the Cabinet meeting. The council's calendar of meetings says the next meeting of the the relevant scrutiny committee won't be until 4th April. Let's just call it "slippage."

Interesting, though, that this motion has been tabled by a group of Conservative councillors for the full council meeting on 27th March:

"This Council supports the development of a Stadium for Cornwall as a private sector led project and recommends to Cabinet that if the Council receives a request for financial support, whether direct or indirect, including by way of guarantees or provision of infrastructure, that the principle of providing such support be debated by Full Council before any decision be made by Cabinet."

It's hard to escape the feeling that three distinct camps have emerged in this saga. First, there are those senior council officials whose energetic enthusiasm for making the stadium happen seems to frighten those gentle souls more used to the long-winded democracy once traditional in local government. Second, there are the elected members of the council (including some cabinet members) who haven't the faintest idea what is going on and are very angry about it. And third, there are the "private sector partners" - particularly Inox - who are supposed to be leading the project but who are curiously reluctant to invest £15.2million in a company which doesn't have a profitable business plan.

In support of my first point I would quote the suggestion first reported in the West Briton that taxpayers would fund £8m worth of infrastructure to help that project which Inox is really interested in, namely the 1,500-home housing estate. In return, Inox was expected to stump up £7m towards the stadium. A cunning plan to get round the Section 106 rules? Would such a deal be legal? It doesn't feature in the recommendation which was due to have been discussed next week, so I guess it's been quietly dropped.

This would explain why Inox is so adamant that it is not putting any of its own money into the stadium - which as councillor Bob Egerton discovered, is perhaps just as well.

Perhaps the real mystery is that given the claimed economic and social benefits of a stadium, the council insisted right from the very start that only the private sector could deliver it. If this was the case, then why have we had a year of secret council meetings where the only topic of conversation has been how to finesse taxpayers' money into the project? Why not just consider the planning issues and leave the high finance to the market?

Maybe officials feared that if they pushed openly for a council-built stadium they would never win the political argument. Instead we have had policy made behind closed doors, with the current recommendation that £15.2m public money be used for a "guarantee," as if councillors are too dim to join the dots. For a council which cannot even keep its public toilets open, on the grounds that it has no statutory obligation to do so, this is the sort of priority which some councillors feel they ought to at least debate.

Whistling in the dark

Graham Smith | 07:57 UK time, Friday, 16 March 2012

It's good to know that anyone working for Torbay Council

"who has a serious concern about any aspect of the Council's work or the actions of its employees should voice their concerns through established channels, without fear of harassment or victimisation"
and that to this end
"Council employees and members of the public can report suspected frauds or poor practice (Not Housing Benefit) to the Audit Service via the confidential reporting service "Speak Up" by telephone or email. The dedicated Fraud Hotline is confidential and available 24 hours a day - 01803 207407."
I do hope that whoever is answering this confidential and dedicated Fraud Hotline 24 hours a day is OK. Here are the answers to my Freedom of Information Questions:

1. Since 1st January 2009, how many calls have been received by the Council's "Dedicated fraud hotline" for whistleblowers?

Since Jan 2009 the number of telephone calls received on the telephone hotline recorded as whistleblowers = 2. 4 other reports were received via the dedicated whistle blowing e-mail inbox .

2. How many of these calls resulted in an internal investigation?

Telephone calls resulting in internal investigation = 0. Of the 4 reports received via e-mail, 1 of these resulted in an investigation.

3. How many investigations resulted in disciplinary action or, eventually, prosecution?

Investigations resulting in discipline / prosecution = 0


You're all wonderful

Graham Smith | 10:36 UK time, Thursday, 15 March 2012

Congrats to Cornwall Council for picking up two gongs at the Local Government Chronicle awards bash last night. Winners in both Children's Services (for Newquay Safe) and Workforce (for Human Resources and Organisational Development.) Two out of five is better than the councils managed in Devon (nil.)

Cornwall was shortlisted for five categories in this year's awards :

  • • Most Improved Council of the Year Award

  • • Public Sector Partnerships Award for the Newquay Safe Partnership

  • • Children's Services Award for the NewquaySafe Partnership

  • • Public/ Private Partnerships Award for Superfast Cornwall

  • • Workforce Award for Human Resources and Organisational Development

Cornwall's getting poorer

Graham Smith | 08:37 UK time, Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Good news:

"...Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly are likely to continue to receive the highest level of European funding to help stimulate economic growth. This means the area stands to receive approximately €500 million between 2014 and 2020."
Bad news:
"Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly's GDP in 1999 before the start of our European funding programmes was 66% of the European average and peaked in 2006 at 78%.

"The figures for the reference period used by the EU to assess eligibility for the next round of European funding is likely to be 2007, 2008 and 2009 for which Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly's GDP was 74%, 73% and 72% respectively demonstrating the impact of the global recession."

- Cornwall Council press released based on European Commission data

Armand Blogs

Graham Smith | 17:03 UK time, Monday, 12 March 2012

Welcome to the blogosphere, Cornwall councillor and Cabinet member Armand Toms. It's early days yet, but I notice that Armand often seems to post before 6am - with one entry, last Friday, at 02.37am. That's keen.

Cornwall's Tories have new deputy leader

Graham Smith | 20:20 UK time, Sunday, 11 March 2012

Congratulations to Cornwall councillor Mike Eathorne-Gibbons, who steps into the shoes vacated by Scott Mann two weeks ago. Mike represents Ladock, St Clement and St Erme and his elevation to the Tory leadership follows Friday's group meeting. I'm told that same group meeting agreed to maintain its policy on the stadium - a policy which says the project should not consume one more penny of taxpayers' money.

Foul calumnies

Graham Smith | 17:11 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2012

My new perch is the ideal place to report an amusing spat between property developer James Brent, the saviour of Plymouth Argyle, and the Torbay Member of Parliament Adrian Sanders. Adrian recently wrote a piece for the Torquay Herald Express speculating about James's intentions towards his recently-acquired Oldway Mansions, which he plans to convert to a hotel. Cue drum roll, trumpets and libel lawyers. Great fun.

Kettles and pots

Graham Smith | 17:01 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2012

I wonder if anyone laughed out loud when they read that a certain political party in Cornwall was complaining to police about a leaflet distributed during a recent Bodmin Town Council by-election. Surely not the same political party which once published a leaflet labelling an election rival "a greasy-haired ****?" (four-letter-word unsuitable for use before the BBC watershed)

The game's afoot

Graham Smith | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2012

I'm really looking forward to moving into my new office, at Oldway Mansions, Paignton. I have been there only twice before - once to play in a chess congress, and once to play in the Torquay tennis tournament. Perhaps I have already formed the opinion that it's somewhere to go for recreation, rather than work. Don't tell the boss.

Both sides now

Graham Smith | 16:58 UK time, Thursday, 8 March 2012

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that this blog is no longer "Graham Smith's Cornwall." Stripped of its geographic specificity, it is now simply "Graham Smith's Blog."

Some readers, I know, will welcome this development - while others might be disappointed. According to Google Analytics, the blog has attracted nearly 9,000 unique visitors since September, so allow me to attempt an explanation.

I no longer work for BBC Radio Cornwall. I now work for BBC Radio Devon. I still live in the same Cornish village which has been my home for the past 32 years - but Devon is a fine county and, in a previous life, for many years, I commuted daily to earn my crust with ITV in Plymouth. The car knows its own way.

Many people have asked me what will become of this blog. The answer is that it will continue - embracing news, views, insights etc etc - from both sides of the Tamar.

Lib Dems to reverse Police Commissioner decision?

Graham Smith | 16:53 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Word reaches me that the number of Liberal Democrat grassroots activists in Devon and Cornwall, unhappy with their regional executive decision not to contest the Police Commissioner election in November, has now reached a critical mass - and could force a special regional conference on the issue. I've asked for an official statement and hope to update soon.

And here it is, sort of:

Dear Mr Smith

The special conference is an internal party matter therefore the Region has no comment at this time.

Yours sincerely

Kay Friend


Devon & Cornwall Region

Cornwall's Lib Dem MPs top Tory hit-list

Graham Smith | 08:00 UK time, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My thanks to Conservative Home for pointing out that all three of the Cornish Parliamentary seats currently held by Liberal Democrats are in the Tories' top eight target seats.

Assuming boundary changes happen as recommended, here are the top Lib Dem marginals with percentage majority over Con

Guiseley and Yeadon 0.3

Bodmin and Newquay 0.3

Abingdon and Oxford North 0.3

Solihull 2.1

Richmond and Twickenham 2.2

Hazel Grove and Poynton 2.2

Truro and St Austell 2.5

St Ives 2.7

As Conservative Home puts it:

"When Tory MPs are most depressed with the failings and compromises of coalition government they comfort themselves with the thought that it is hurting the Liberal Democrats much more than it is hurting Conservatives. The Lib Dems are the bindweed of British politics. Once they've invaded territory they are hard to get rid of but the next election is our best opportunity in a generation to significantly cut their numbers. While they are down on the floor we shouldn't show mercy. We must finish them off."

With coalition friends like these, who needs enemies?

Stadium cash - the secret details

Graham Smith | 20:11 UK time, Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Amazing the junk that people just leave laying around on my desk. But now that I've had a good read myself of the notorious "Stadium pink papers" I can report a few details which were previously unknown to me.

1. Option 1 in the document, written by the council's Head of Economic Development, outlined how the council would participate directly as a funder and member of the Cornwall Community Stadium Ltd. It looks as if Option 1 is not going to be pursued. Only five days ago the council said:

" has not changed its position from the previous Council decision that no public funding will be used for the stadium. Any suggestion that the Council could act as a guarantor for the project is very premature."

2. Option 2, which as previously reported calls on the council to guarantee the project, will be considered at a meeting of the Environment and Economy Overview & Scrutiny Committee on 21st March with a target "implementation date" of 31st March. Very premature?

3. The shortfall is at least £4.3million - much more than that if Inox's contribution is as flakey as it now appears.

4. The council is still of the opinion that Inox will chip in with £7m. This is despite Inox's very clear statement to the contrary.

5. The hotel developers will be called on to support the stadium to the tune of £0.5m.

6. On page 261 the secret report says: "The extent of community use of the stadium proposed by CCSL is not yet clear. However, CCSL has been incorporated as a private limited company and is not, therefore, a "not for profit" organisation or a body with charitable objects."

7. The papers are all marked "Exempt - Not for Publication." The council official who decided the documents were commercially confidential (so confidential, in fact, that it appears that even Inox has not seen them) is of course entitled to his opinion. Only a cynic would suggest that the idea of pouring millions of pounds of public money into this project is a profoundly political issue. I wonder if any members of the Environment and Economy Overview & Scrutiny Committee will challenge the "secret session" recommendation on 21st March.

From a very disappointed leader

Graham Smith | 14:39 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2012

To all members of Cornwall Council:

"Dear colleagues,

"Regrettably following the recent incidence of late payment of council tax and childish tweeting, this week has been another disappointing one for the reputation of Cornwall Council.

"Last week we were able to set a budget which protected frontline services and provided additional funding for innovative projects such as the Cornwall Bursary and the Housing Strategy.

"However, rather than being able to build on this positive news, we have spent the last few days being criticised over our handling of the Stadium for Cornwall project. As you know the main part of the report which went to the Environment and Economy Overview and Scrutiny Committee was considered in Part 2 because it contained commercially sensitive information relating to third parties. This was agreed by Members who sit on the scrutiny committee after advice from the legal team.

"I am, therefore, very disappointed that the report has been leaked to the press. We do not make the decision to put an item into Part 2 lightly. We have been accused by some of failing to be open and transparent - but the fact is that we try to discuss as much as possible in the public part of a meeting. There will, however, occasionally be times when we need to discuss an issue in private. This is not because we have something to hide but because it enables us to have open and frank discussions which rely for their value on access to and knowledge of confidential background information.

"The report on the Stadium contained financial information relating to private sector companies and other stakeholders. It also contained a number of appendices with details of earlier discussions which had been overtaken by subsequent events. Making the information public in this way has not only caused confusion, it has also potentially damaged our relationship with the key stakeholders involved in the project.

"Some Members have suggested we should be "putting the record straight" by commenting on the content of the confidential report. While I share your frustration at the some of the comments which have been made, I support the view of the Monitoring Officer that this could lead to a situation where anyone wishing to make confidential information public deliberately leaks it to the media and then claims that it should be made available to everyone because the media has it. This would put the Council in an impossible situation when making decisions on potentially sensitive issues.

"As I said earlier I am very disappointed that a Member has chosen to leak the report to the media and I know that nearly all of you share that disappointment. There is a clearly set out code of conduct governing the behaviour of all Members and releasing confidential information breaches this code. Members have a duty to make sure that they do not act in a way that damages the reputation of the authority and I feel very strongly that we all need to uphold the responsibility we've been privileged to be given.

"Earlier this week Carolyn sent out an update on the discussions with staff and unions over a new collective agreement. As you know last year's collective agreement made a significant contribution to our financial strategy with savings of more than £6m. There is no question that this helped to save jobs and to protect front line service delivery. I would like to thank the staff and unions for working with us to protect jobs and services.

"I am pleased that we have been able to sign another collective agreement. Carolyn's message set out the main elements of the agreement, which will include a lifting of the pay freeze from April 1st, with increments paid on 1 April and again next year. After that we are looking to introduce contribution related pay. It also includes changes to mileage rates for staff in mainly frontline roles who do substantial business miles with little or no choice over whether they use their own vehicle. There will also be a new standby and call out payment scheme and a lifting of the cap on the hourly rate for overtime.

"The new agreement is not about putting back everything that was taken away but will help us address the most serious issues arising from last year's agreement without compromising our financial strategy. It will also enable us to develop pay arrangements that a more direct connection between an employee's pay and their contribution, and better align the Council's reward arrangements with its business objectives.

"I would like to end by welcoming yesterday's announcement by Fire Minister Bob Neill that that the we have been awarded £1.8m by the Government to improve our fire control function.

"We know that our current control room needs upgrading and this funding will enable us to move forward with plans to co locate Fire Control, Lifeline Alarm, Public Realm CCTV and Command Centre functions in one place. Des Tidbury and his team will now be working with partners to develop a range of potential options, one of which could be creating a new purpose built centre in the Camborne, Pool, Redruth area. .

With best wishes

Alec Robertson CC
Cornwall Council

Seven days

Graham Smith | 17:42 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2012

This time last week:
The official stadium business plan, as published on the council's website, claimed Inox and the other partners in Cornwall Community Stadium Ltd had in place the "majority" of their capital requirements. But a significant part of the business plan was withheld from public gaze on the grounds of "commercial confidentiality."

We now know:
Inox has no intention of investing in the stadium. Yet the secret business plan claimed Inox would contribute £7m of the £15.2m required. Inox says:

"We have made no promises whatsoever and our position remains that we do not intend to fund the capital costs of the stadium, but we may be able to facilitate third party investment.....Inox Group has been in talks with third party private investors, and there is potential interest in funding the project but there is presently no formal agreement in place that would guarantee private sector funding."
The only CCS partner who can currently be relied upon to invest in the stadium is Truro & Penwith College - leaving a shortfall of more than £13m.

This time last week:
Cornwall Council said it would not contribute to the costs of building the stadium.

We now know:
The secret business plan suggested that the council contribute £8m in infrastructure costs and offer to underwrite the £15.2m capital spend. A bid to have this suggestion deleted from the business plan was defeated by 7 votes to 6 at a secret meeting on 22nd February.

This time last week:
Scott Mann was deputy leader of Cornwall Council's Conservative group.

We now know:
Next week's Conservative group meeting is going to be even more entertaining than usual.

Stadium: beginning of the end?

Graham Smith | 10:04 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2012

Cornwall stadium (mp3)
Councillors voted 7-6? That makes it rather more than just the blue-sky musings of a single officer. County Hall has got some explaining to do.

Why the stadium story isn't yet boring

Graham Smith | 06:39 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2012

Today's West Briton newspaper quotes details from the confidential "Part Two" council business plan. If this document is merely a senior council officer speculating about how taxpayers' money could help fund the stadium, then there is no reason why it should have been secret. I'll post details here as soon as I get time - it certainly explains Scott Mann's resignation. Meanwhile, very well done to Miles Davis of the West Briton.

UPDATE: Today's West Briton reports that the council is considering spending up to £8m on infrastructure, mainly building roads to serve both the stadium and the housing project. It also reports the council idea of underwriting the £15m stadium project.

The council has issued this response:

"The project to create a Stadium for Cornwall is still at an early stage. Clearly there is still a lot more work to be done on exploring the viability of the project.

"Discussions are continuing with the key stakeholders, namely Truro and Penwith College, Inox Group and the Cornish Pirates Rugby Football Club who have come together to form Cornwall Community Stadium Limited, and also Truro City Football Club on a range of issues, including how the project could be funded.

"The Council continues to support the principle of creating a multi purpose stadium for Cornwall, however it has not changed its position from the previous Council decision that no public funding will be used for the stadium. Any suggestion that the Council could act as a guarantor for the project is very premature. The Council has not received any such request from Cornwall Community Stadium Limited or any other body.

"While the Council is committed to being open and transparent, it would be inappropriate to comment on a confidential report. Members of the Economy and Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee agreed that the report should be considered in confidential session on the advice of the Council's legal team as it contains commercially sensitive information relating to third parties. Items such as this are held in confidential session to enable Members to discuss commercially sensitive information as part of their decision making and we are concerned that it has been made public in this way."

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