Mushrooms – The last to know

I posted previously (at 11:01) about the announcement of super-fast broadband and how its great news (Click Here if you need to refresh yourself ). What concerns me is how I was treated as a Councillor in the Authority that I am elected to. It makes it worse that that Council is also handing over rather large sums of money. To top it all, the same powers-to-be decided to keep this from the non-Cabinet Members. 

I got a brief e-mail from the Leader saying there was going to be an announcement, but lacked any real details. Funny thing is that many people not in the Council were fully aware of the details, but I as an Elected Member was not. If this was an isolated case, then I might understand, but it’s far from an isolated case.

Even as I watched the online traffic and various news organisations talking quite openly about this, I could not comment, not only because I knew very little, but because if I did I could have been in trouble for breaching the embargo! There is no surprise that there is becoming a serious problem in communication between the senior Cabinet/Exec Dept and those back benchers who do not live on the 4th floor of County Hall. I would not say outright rebellion (yet), but there are many, many unhappy Councillors who are calling for a change before irreparable damage is done.  Only today in the Members room there was talk of this rift. This is this cross-party and not just the politic games.

For something that has the potential to affect many people in Cornwall those elected by the people were the last to know. There was a term that was quite common in the Forces. That was “I feel like a mushroom, as I am kept in the dark and fed s***”. A briefing on the details could have easily been arranged so Councillors could understand the details of this project.
Will it change? I do hope so before the call of “aux barricades” goes out.

Click Here for Cllr Alex Folkes views

Super-fast Broadband – A Reality?

Today the Leader of the Council, Alec Robertson has announced in conjunction with the Chief Exec of BT that a multi-million pound project will be launched that would enable the people of Cornwall access to super-fast broadband.
If this is indeed pulled off, Cornwall I believe will benefit from this technology. Not just in business and industry, but us mere mortals at home. To a lot of people this would enable people to make better use of the internet, or actually be able to access the internet. There are still far too many places in Cornwall that have limited or no access to the current broadband service.
It could also revolutionise the way we watch our favourite programs via the internet. I am a great fan of the TV Company’s sites. With this technology you might really be able to watch something without waiting for the next segment to be loaded.
The real benefit should result in major job creation with the powers-to-be claiming it could result in thousands of jobs being created. But there is a real danger that unless these thousands of job being taken up by those presently residents of Cornwall. House prices could rise.
The simple reason is that there has been a massive premium and shortage of housing that has resulted in over inflated prices. That’s unless we start to build many thousands of homes. This of course would not go down well with many people of Cornwall as Towns would suddenly increase in size. I know how much criticism the previous Government housing strategy came under, and more recently the Wainhomes application in St. Austell.
This question is like the old chicken and egg argument. Do you need houses before jobs, or jobs before houses? That I am afraid, will get you different answers depending on who you speak too.
At the end of the day I do believe Cornwall should get this technology. For far too long we in the very south west have been missed off the list for new shiny objects. Let’s hope this super-fast broadband really happens and we don’t get the old marketing ploy of ‘up-to’ that current ISPs use.

I have posted before about this. Feel free to refresh your memory with my previous post by clicking HERE

Stadium for Cornwall – Update

I received this morning a report from Cornwall Council giving an Overview of the current position on the plan for a Stadium for Cornwall. Sadly I cannot give details of the report as its marked Confidential. I am therefore bound by certain rules as per the Code of Conduct.

I am grateful for the Portfolio Holder to pass this on to me.  It’s not in any great detail, but at least now I have some evidence on the proposed plan. I will look forward to the full report in December.

A Success – Planning

Today at the West Planning Committee my first ‘call-in’ was on the Agenda. A ‘call-in’ is the right as a Cornwall Councillor to call any application in their division. This is the first time in over 16 months I have done this. The simple reason is that I prefer to negotiate between the interested parties like Porthleven Town Council, the applicant, objectors and Cornwall Council. I have so far managed to sort out most planning issues this way. It’s a lot easier to get all parties involved to talk and sort it out. This application had reached the buffers, and there was no other way than to take this to Committee 

The area in question is the former school canteen near Wellington Rd. It has recently been sold by Cornwall Council as surplus to requirements. Many people thought this building should be given for community use, but sadly the building was old, rotten and had large parts of it constructed out of asbestos. It would have needed to be knocked down and a replacement built. It was offered to the community, but it came with a price take of around £120k. That did not include the cost of the rebuild.

The site was sold with outline planning permission for one single storey dwelling. Most people who I spoke to supported this and were quiet happy with this. Sadly, as it was the right of the new owners, they decided to place three 2 storey buildings on this site. I will use the word shoehorned, as that’s what it amounted too. Anyway the Town Council were not happy with this, nor did the nearby residents. In fact this development would have had a very big negative impact on those houses along Wellington Rd. The applicant would not negotiate, so I decided to call this to Committee.

The short story is that I got it refused unanimously by the Planning Committee. They felt all the issues I raised were valid and decided to support me in my recommendations for refusal. The applicant has the right of appeal to the planning inspectorate, but I gave enough reasons to support refusal that should hold up if the applicant decides to go down this route. What I hope is the applicant will listen to the issues and I hope resubmit new plans that are for a maximum of 2 single storey building. I would be happier with one, but I have to be realistic on this.
Trying to cram as many houses into one small plot to maximise profit is not good for those residents that would be affected by it. It’s better to work with the local community to achieve something than purely for a better balance sheet.

Solar Panels – The solution or fad?

Cornwall Council claims that up to £1 Billion could be invested in Cornwall by means of photo-voltaic solar power. The Council claims it might expect up to 100 planning applications each with around £10m worth of investment.
Now that sounds all very nice, but is these solar farms really cost effective? From my understanding these panel attract some rather large Government Funding to make them cost effective. 
Will the landscape of Cornwall be changed with fields of glass reflecting the sunlight? Will that spoil the environment in a more visual way? There is no getting away that we need to do something about renewable energy. We can’t go on the way we are going without a fundamental change to energy and how it’s produced.
Why Cornwall again? We were told we had to have the turbines because of the wind in the south west, but now we have to have the solar panels as well? It’s all well and good in having these in Cornwall, but does it make our energy prices cheaper for those affected by these being placed in our area? Will those areas most affected by compensated? It did not happen for those affected by the turbines. Maybe a lesson learnt there. Maybe these companies should now have to put their hands in those deep pockets and give something back to the communities affected.
I feel that Cornwall is going to be used (yet again) for large companies jumping onto the vast profit bandwagon with the latest fad. I will admit that I am no expert on this type of energy, but neither was I when I first started to learn about turbines. I learnt about turbines by means of briefings, reading and doing research. I guess I will now have to do the same for this before I have to make a decision that will affect those people who live close to these new farms.
The last issue for thought is out of the possible £1 billion invested, how much of the profit will actually stay in Cornwall?  My guess (and I am willing to be proven wrong) is very little.

Parking Enforcement – Porthleven

I have blogged about enforcement and parking in Porthleven before. It’s a problem for a few reasons. One of the main problems is that people just park where they like, no matter what restrictions are in place. Another is the lack of enforcement to deal with the first point. Add Porthleven has been around before the motorcar and that a lot of households have more than two cars. All these issues added up together make for a rather large problem. 
I could list all the problem areas in Porthleven, but it would be easier to just say most streets have some sort of issue. The question is how to solve these problems. It’s something that I have been thinking about for a long time.  Every idea has its merits and problems. Many people who I speak too, or have contacted me have there own ideas how it could be solved. I feel that first step is to look at the enforcement side of the issue.
Cornwall Council is responsible for most on and off parking infringements. The Police are also still responsible for certain parts too, but seem reluctant to do anything. Porthleven like many other towns in Cornwall gets allocated certain hours for Civil Enforcement. Sadly they can’t be here all day. People know this and they know that they stand little chance of being caught. I believe that something should be done about this.
One of the ideas I have come up with and will be presenting to Porthleven Town Council in October for their views is to buy in extra enforcement. This is possible by means of purchasing hours for an enforcement officer. It would be like having our own enforcement officer without the extra hassle of employment, litigation and support. We (as in Porthleven Town Council) could pay for this by means of the precept for Porthleven. 
Before everyone jumps up and says “I pay enough tax already” look at how much this will cost you, the residents of Porthleven if we adopted this scheme. I will use the example of buying in 25 extra hours of enforcement per week.
25 hours X £14 (Officer Rate per hour) X 52 weeks = £18,200 per year.  There are 1703 houses in Porthleven that are on the electoral role. So, if you do the simple sum of dividing the yearly cost by the number of houses in Porthleven it will cost £10.68 per house to have almost dedicated enforcement in Porthleven. That works out at 20 pence per week per house. When you break it down its not expensive and would solve a lot of the problems with parking in Porthleven, especially in the known trouble spots.
Of course there are going to be some drawbacks. Namely, people who infringe will get tickets. I have found in the past people who have complained to me about parking who I then see doing the same as they have complained about. I also don’t like paying extra, but sometimes it will be worth it to achieve something.
I will be presenting all this information to Porthleven Town Council to see if they are willing to accept and adopt this course of action, as they are the ones who set the Precept each year. From my memory they have not raised the Precept for the last 3 years. Below is a simple poll asking if you would in principle support this action or not. I will then use this information as part of my report to Porthleven Town Council.

Here is the poll. Closing date is the 10th October 2010

Supermarkets – Calls and Letters

In the role of an Councillor you get a lot of correspondence from various parties. Some are local, they come under complaints, planning issues (for and against) and they odd thank you letter. It’s always nice to receive the later. The other types are from the larger organisations who have in the last few years really geared up their correspondence to elected officials.

The latest company to send me letters is Sainsbury’s. It seems they are making a huge investment (you could argue if you call it investment) into Cornwall. In the last week I have received 3 different letters and two phone calls from them. If they speak to me I am very careful in what I say, especially as I sit on Cornwall Council’s Strategic Planning Committee. I reply. Thank you for your call etc, but please understand I can’t comment at the moment, but  I will look forward to your application etc. 

Out of all the supermarkets I have dealt with Sainbury’s has the correspondence down to a T. It also seems that they are also willing to hand over large amounts of cash to local councils as ‘town improvements’.   Helston received £400,000 from Sainbury’s (Tesco also gave £400k). Word is that similar figures are being offered to local councils for town improvements if they support their applications. I will leave it up to you how you see these payments, but at least these supermarkets are not just saying we are coming here, so tough.

Supermarkets are here to stay, we have made sure of that by using them. If people did not turn their backs on the high street 20 odd years ago then maybe there would be more shops flourishing in our town centres. I have had correspondence in connection with Penzance, Wadebridge and Falmouth. The final one today was in connection with a new build for a Sainsbury’s in Falmouth.

School Academies – The Holy Grail?

I think one of the most important functions of a Local Authority (Cornwall Council)  is to educate its children to a high standard. I don’t think anyone could argue against that. The LA should always strive to make sure that happens. Today at County Hall the Children’s, Schools and Families Scrutiny Committee met. On the Agenda was the topic of Academies. Click HERE for the report.

Academies are the latest Government initiative on schools, and how they are run. In a nutshell, if a school passes the test to become one, it gets all its funding direct from central Government. To qualify a school must have an outstanding OFSTED report. It then can apply and if successful, it can then become an Academy. The school is then totally independent of the LA. It is in real terms a limited company, and is responsible for everything.

Now you could argue that this is great. The school can now get on with educating its children to how the Head and the Governors direct. At present it has to follow the National Curriculum, but this could change as the Government is looking at options of allowing the school to take on other education methods like the baccalaureate for one. Again, you could argue that the current curriculum is not perfect, but is anything?

It’s when you get down to the details that for me alarm bells start to ring. At present if you have a problem with any aspect of a school you contact the Council. It will normally respond with answers. If you are not happy with that, then you can contact your local Councillor who can take up your case. In an Academy you don’t complain to the Council or a Councillor, but a department in Whitehall. Yep, that’s London. Hardly a close and direct method. In fact, the whole safeguarding issue is a serious concern because the LA cannot intervene at any stage.

If a school offers a certain service it can normally buy it in with a corporate price as the LA will be able to purchase it Cornwall wide at a better price. Not if you are an Academy. You have to buy it in as an individual. So there is a real danger that to get a licence/service it will cost a lot more.

Let’s get on to the subject of staff pay and pensions. At present they are employed by the LA. The pensions are also paid into the corporate pot. Not if you are an Academy. The Academy is responsible for that as well. For example, if a TA works at an Academy for 10 years and wishes to switch to a LA school then the current accrued pension can’t be transferred. Unlike if you transferred between LA schools your pension is still in the LA pot.  As for pay, at present a head in a LA controlled school can within reason set pay. In an Academy school the Board of Governors and Head sets it completely. That could be higher or much lower than you would get in a LA school. Will that attract the right staff?

I could go on about the pitfalls because the more I read, the more concerned I became with some massive potential problems. When the Committee quizzed senior officers about the Academies. They did not have the answers. Why? Well, because a lot of the details have not been finalised by the Government and are still being ‘looked’ into. Now that really concerned me. Not as a Councillor, but as a parent.

If more schools decide to go down the Academy route this will mean more money goes out of the LA pot. The LA completely loses that funding. There is a real danger if more leave then those school left that don’t have the outstanding OFSTED report are going to have to fight for less money. If there is less money then how do we afford to fund the remaining schools? If that happens, then I can see schools closing and amalgamating because the LA just could not afford to run all the schools.

The LA can do nothing. Because it’s been passed by Government. It was passed by Government in 11 weeks. In Government time terms that is light-speed. I really am worried that we are going to get a two tier education system. Do parents have a say in this matter? This next paragraph is surely going to reassure you

However, whether or not a school becomes an Academy (if the application is approved) is ultimately decision for the school’s governing body. Aside from the formal TUPE consultation with staff transferring to the employment of the new Academy Trust, the Government’s initial guidance suggested that there was no statutory requirement to consult parents, pupils and other interested parties, although the governing body would wish to keep them informed. This was, however, amended during the progress of the Bill and the Act places a duty on governing bodies to ‘consult those persons whom they think appropriate before entering into funding arrangements with the Secretary of State. This guidance really assured me (I am being sarcastic) if my sons school decided to go down this route.

I am not saying there are no benefits to this new system, but for me and most of those who sit on this Committee there is a real worry that this system has not really been thought though fully and ‘rushed’. In Cornwall there is only one school who have become an Academy. I really hope is works out for them. I yet remain unconvinced if it will indeed work.

Cornwall Council – Complaints

A few weeks ago I made some inquiries about the number and type of complaints that have been made to Cornwall Council. The reason is that it was rumoured that one of the top complaints was to do with Tortoises.  I found this a little strange because of all the worry about cuts and other whot-nots.  I asked the question to the head of service for Public Health and Protection was this indeed true.  He was kind enough to supply me with some fact and figures. The ‘top four’ are: 

  1. Unhappy with a response in relation to a  request for a service – 13 (3 Healthy homes; 4 Pest Control; 4 Noise; 1 Dog Fouling and 2 Health and safety
  2. No reply to a letter/e-mail/phone call -7
  3. Attitude of staff – 6
  4. Charging for pest control – 5

As you can see there is no mention of these hard shell creatures, but that because they have been classified under comments rather than complaints. In fact there were 32 comments in relation to Tortoises. So if these were complaints then they would be number one.
On asking the Portfolio Holder Lance Kennedy about this subject he further made comments (which he said I could use). He said he has received over 130 e-mails that were making comments about Tortoises. He made comment that out of all the issues people were more concerned about them than anything else. 
I have to agree with him on this. In Cornwall we face many challenges and difficulties. We may have to lose 25% of our budget, our social services came into massive criticism by OFSTED, high officers pay to name but a few, but it seems that people are more concern with these slow moving hard backed creatures than anything else.  
Napoleon did once comment that Britain was a nation of shop keepers and animal lovers. I guess one of those comments still holds true today as it did in the 19th Century.  

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