Cornwall Council Budget and Greeks Bearing Gifts

Yesterday’s council meeting was a long session of debating the budget that many felt was early because a lot of information from central government was still sketchy. Considering the council tax does not have to be set till February why the rush?

The main crux of yesterday was either to tax the £6 million ‘grant’ from central government if the council freezes council tax, or look to add a percentage onto next years bill. Most people would say take the money from government, but as the Trojans would say ‘Be wary of the Greeks bearing gifts’ because taking this money is not without risk.

You see this money is for one year only (though CC is lobbying government for it to be year on year) and the fear is a larger council tax rise of up to 5% might need to be made in the 2013/14; or face a £6m shortfall in the budget. Hence my reason for waiting till the government gives details on the grant settlement in December. After all it is well known for moving the goalposts at the last minute.

The Section151 Officer (the officer responsible for the council finances) has made the point of a risk to the council in accepting the £6m grant. Here says:

As part of the budget report in February 2012, there will be a further report on the risks within the budget and the robustness of the budget as part of the Section 151 Officer’s section 25 statement in accordance with regulations.  This will consider the impact of accepting a one off grant to reduce council tax and the risks to the
2013/14 budget

 If Council fail to make a decision on the budget at that point it will be the duty of the Section 151 Officer to recommend a budget for the Council.  Should this occur then it is likely that this report will form the basis of his budget accompanied with a 2½ % increase in council tax.

For all of the political posturings yesterday on who will look good on an election leaflet there is a real danger of having good headlines this year is only saving up trouble for next. This would be unfair on the public who we serve.

I believe there is still so many questions that have not been answered at yesterdays budget and voted according to that view. For the record (though it was recorded) I abstained on the vote to hike the council tax because I am not convinced we have all the relevant information and voted against the budget because in was clearly going for the zero percent rise in council tax and I am not yet convinced this is right too.

Let’s hope all the information is present in the February meeting when we legally (not before) have to set council tax as hopefully then it will be clear which option on accepting the grant or raising council tax is best for the people of Cornwall.

Should There be a St Piran’s Public Holiday?

With the Budget debate over it was time to move on to the debate on should there be a St Piran’s Day public holiday in place (extra would be nice) of one of the current May holidays. I have nothing in principle to moving this holiday, but I have some reservations to the process.
One of these is the lack of public consultation to firmly establish the support in Cornwall to moving this holiday. You could argue there is more support for a later public holiday in say, October. But again, this is more on guesswork than actual hard evidence. 

I firmly believe before any letter is sent to central government we gather the views of the public with a few options. However, this is not what Cornwall Council decided today. Granted it did say it would consult, but it also said it would send a letter to government giving our preference this is before any consultation has taken place. 

This is the problem I have. How can you send a preference if you do not know what the public want. I made the point if we just added a percentage to carparking without consulting there would be uproar. I know you cannot consult on everything, but when something like effecting someones holiday, then surely we should try and consult before we give the ‘official’ view.

Anyway, here is the recommendation which was  the carried by the majority:

1. The Chief Executive, following consultation with the Leader, be requested to write to central government stating (1) that, in principle, any change in the May Bank Holiday should lead to the creation of a public holiday in Cornwall on St Piran’s Day and (2) that the government should press ahead with full consultation on the issue of replacing the May Bank Holiday. 

2. The Chief Executive consider how to undertake most effectively a test of public opinion on the issue of creating a St Piran’s Day Public Holiday in Cornwall and report back to a future meeting on the options including the cost implications. 

My Amendment is Defeated – Just

You will more than likely be in for a treat of two blogs today on the budget meeting at Cornwall Council. The first one will be on my amendment to reduce the Leader Contingency Budget in the 2012/13 period from £600,000 to £250,000. Currently it is set at £1 million. 
My amendment would transfer £175,000 to the transportation (buses) budget and the same amount to public toilet funds. I believe these two areas are under huge budgetary pressures. You only got to look at the recent outrage when 114 toilets were earmarked to lose their funding. Bus routes are also under threat with the reduction to the amount paid by the council to the bus companies to help pay for concessionary fares. (reduction from 75% of the cost to 50%). The overall budget bus budget is likely to be reduced from £3.9m to £3.1m. This will have an affect on bus routes.
I blogged about some of the areas this money has been used HERE, but is it right this budget funds the Tall Ships race £100,000? Or the Local Enterprise Partnership Board (LEP) to the tune of £40,000 for travel expenses, subsistence and the Chairmans honorarium? Surely the latter should be funded out of the LEP’s own money and the former out of the economic development pot. 
Other areas funded are establishing a Cornish Focus Paper (Census) to the tune of £20,000, or the Olympic Torch for £80,000. It is not that I am against some of this funding or the other areas already funded (but I have not yet listed), but the budget could be used better. Hence my amendment. 
As for the vote, my amendment was narrowly defeated by 51 against, 47 for. It was interesting to note that the entire Conservative party present voted against this proposal. I shall be reminding them when they complain about cuts to these services for lack of money, when they had the chance to put in more money into these two areas. 
Still only losing by 4 votes shows many believed in what I was trying to do. 

Cornwall Council, its Budget and My Amendment

It is that time again when Cornwall Council sets its budget for the following financial year. This will take place tomorrow and as last year, this budget is being set early. This has lead to some query as to why, considering a lot of the detail from central government is not quite firmed up.
A concern by many is the ‘too good to be true’ offer from Eric Pickles of £6m if a council does not raise the rate of council tax. The concern is this money is for one year only, and the worry is there will have to be a larger rise of over 5% in 2013/14 to maintain the current services, or worse, fine more ‘savings’ during that period. Those not wanting to see a large rise in the 2013/14 period prefer a split rise of 2.5% for 2012/13 and 2013/14. 
Cornwall Council is not alone in this dilemma as other local authorities will have to make similar decisions. Some have already said they will turn down this offer from Mr Pickles because they believe it is more a political gimmick. For me, I am split on this, as I welcome a no percentage rise, but also understand services still have to be provided. 
I have though put in my own amendment to the budget. This amendment has to be legally and financially correct, and has to be signed off by both. I am pleased to say it has, on both counts. The amendment is a follows:
“That £350,000 is permanently vired from the Leader’s Contingency Budget with £175,000 of the said virement being transferred to the public convenience budget and £175,000 of the said virement transferred to the public transport budget”.

Currently the Leader’s Contingency Budget is set at £1 million, but will be reduced (already in the budget) to £600,000 for the 2012/13 period. However, in the 2010/11 period this budget was only £200,000. I believe £250,000 is a more realistic budget considering the current economic climate, and the pressures facing so many other services.
As to what has been spent from this fund I will allow you to be the judge of this. From the last information I have been sent these are the items so far funded (with the information provided)

 2010/11: 

  • £4k for Celtic County Pavillions – this is cost of supporting the Cornish Pavilion at the International Lorient Festival 2010
  • £8k for consultancy on apprasial/coaching – The consulting appraisal process and coaching expenditure of £8,000 was an external independent appraisal of the Chief Executive.  The report produced by the independent appraiser was reviewed by a cross party panel of members
  • 36k for the Penhallow Inquest
  • 10K Male Voice Choir – Transferred to Localism
2011/12:

  • £50k for Camelford Leisure 
  • £80k for Olympic Torch
  • £100,000 for the 2014 Tall Ships
Even if you add another £100,000 spending to the 2011/12 period this still leaves over £650,000 unspent. I believe this money could be better spent elsewhere like the two areas in my motion. This motion, like the others submitted will be debated by the whole council on Tuesday. I am hopeful that my motion will be supported by my colleagues because both areas are important and are facing difficult budgetary pressures.  

For those who are wondering why there is no mentio of either the stadium or the failed Plymouth World Cup bid these were funded from different pots of money. The stadium from the Economic Development Services’ Economic Initiatives Fund.  With the World Cup bid from the Corporate Contingency Budget.

Roll on Tuesday….


Big Brother Watch Criticises Cornwall Council

A recent report by the organisation/group called Big Brother Watch has over the last year requested via FOI information from local authorities on data lost by them. It claims Cornwall Council is the tenth worst authority with 25 cases of losing data from those authorities who replied. The report from BBW is HERE

Tenth worst, with twenty-five cases? Sounds really bad does it, but what are those twenty-five items? State secrets, or some other ‘top secret for your eyes only’ information. I am not excusing loss of data, but lets look at these breaches.
Out of these twenty-five cases
  • 9 were letters/fax/email posted or sent to the wrong address/recipient
  • 4 letter posted in error
  • 1 case of loss of memory stick (the stick was empty and encrypted)
  • 1 case of loss of a camera (pictures of services users on it)
  •  2 cases of letter/documents lost in the post
  • 1 back up tape lost
  • 2 cases of personal details left in a FOI response
  • 1 case of email addresses of customers visible in a group email
  • TUPE information sent to tenderers (not the best move really)
  • 1 case of paperwork lost from confidential bins (how did they know it was lost as confidential bins are locked)
  • 1 case of a mobile phone lost
Mistakes do happen, especially for such a large organisation like Cornwall Council and every effort should be made to stop data breaches like these. I just thought I would put it in perspective. Might be interesting to know how many breaches have been made by central government, or the local NHS trust. Also, I wonder how many letters Royal Mail ‘misplaces’ each year?
Anyway, Graham Smith of BBC Radio Cornwall gives his views on the subject HERE

Charging for Planning Advice?

Planning permission is far from simple and leaves many people who go though this process frustrated and sometime angry if something happens that could affect them. In the past a lot of potential problems have been overcome with pre-application advice. This on the whole has been free.

Now, Cornwall Council is planning to charge for this service. In parts I can agree with this because many developers use the pre-app advice as a way to reduce their own architect/development costs. This ties up a lot of officer hours that could be better used.

It looks from the draft proposals some of this pre-app advice will remain free, but this will be very basic. No decision has been made, as this proposal is still out for consultation with the town and parish councils and the public. The draft document is HERE

The area that must remain free is pre-applications for householders who wish to make small changes to their homes, like extentions etc.  Porthleven Town Council made this very point when it discussed this at their last meeting. The council also made the point that if any pre-app advice is given, this should be included in any planning documents sent to the town/parish council as part of the consultation process.

Meeting with First’s Management Team

I was invited to attended a meeting at Truro College with Cornwall and Devon First Bus Group. I was not alone, as the other 122 Councillors of Cornwall Council were also invited to attend this event. Sadly, only three other Cornwall Councillors did indeed attend. Pretty poor showing, but First do not cover all areas of Cornwall. 

I really feel those Councillors who choose not to attend really missed out as First had their entire regional management team, including the MD present. With so few Councillors there it gave the four of us the chance to have a real one on one discussion with the First management team. It is not often you get the chance to discuss strategic and local issues with those who set policies and help run the company.
It was great to hear where the company wants to be in the next few years in Cornwall, and how it wants to improve services and the experience of travelling on the bus. Contactless ticketing (like the Oyster Card in London)  is one of those areas that will be introduced in the next year or so. Currently all the ticket machines in First’s buses are being upgraded to allow this technology to be used. Wifi is also a possibility on the main commuter routes. This is currently being trialled on the Cardiff – Swansea route. So far, this is really working and the MD said he hoped to roll it out to other areas. 

I made the point the cost of tickets puts many people off; especially for families. I asked why can’t children travel free if accompanied by an adult, or a like scheme that would help encourage families to use the bus. Also, more deals should be for those groups that receive no type of concessionary rates. Both these ideas received a positive response from the MD. Now I know he is not going to suddenly implement these ideas, but he did say this is something the company is looking at now.

A real interesting idea the company is working on is some sort of mobile app/program that will give you a live update on where a bus is. So a quick check of your phone you will let know how far away the bus is, or if it is running a little late. This could reduce the time people wait at a bus stop. I really like this idea as I know from experience how much extra time you have to allow when catching a bus.

The real surprise of the evening was when one of the finance directors came up to me and asked why Cornwall Council were not part of First’s business club promotion. I asked no idea, have you contacted the council? He replied he tried, but got the cold-shoulder from Cornwall Council. I said I would help out, but could you explain how the deal works. In helping those who travel a lot they can get a discounted ticket. For instance, an average monthly ticket costs £98 per month, but if Cornwall Council signs up for this (no cost to the council) a ticket can be bought by a council employee for a monthly cost of around £65; a saving of around 31% of the annual price. 

I feel this is a no-brainer for the council to sign up to this. I asked if Cornwall Council got a lot of people to sign up for this could a better deal be done. The chap from First choked a little, but then said yes, we can always talk about this.  He also mentioned that he would love to offer this to RCHT, but like the council it is hard to get to talk to the right person.

I said I will talk to those who deal with this, and today, I have done. I spoke to the Portfolio Holder this morning and his response was ‘were do we sign’. 

I believe if a bus was seen as a more clean and more pleasurable experience with decent and affordable ticket pricing more would use them. First is not there yet, but from what I heard and talked about I believe they are trying to get there. 


Can Do is now Can’t Do

The ‘Can Do’ document sent by Cornwall Council to central government has been rejected by those in Westminster. Is rejected too strong? How about did not make the short-listing. The reasons for not making the grade is it was too ambitious for a new authority. In other words learn to walk before you can run.

I had a very interesting conversation with some of the document writers. Conversations like these are great; because it gives a better understanding of each others view points. In the document writers defence, the time-frame for the submission of this document was very tight. However, it does not get over the fact no one asked those elected for their views. It was a point accepted.

As they say ‘there is always next year’

Superfast Broadband is Coming to Porthleven

The plan to roll out superfast broadband through-out Cornwall is well under way with many places able to access this now, or very soon. But how does Porthleven fair in this? Pretty good really, as since a briefing I recently attended I am mightily impressed with what has happened and what is going to happen in the next twelve months.

Porthleven will get fibre to the premises (FTTP) and fibre to the cabinet (FTTC). Now, I cannot say too much at the moment due to some of this information is still restricted, but what I can say is a lot of Porthleven will be able to access FTTP. The FTTC should be available in the first half of 2012, with FTTP being available in the latter half of the year.

This is a huge project with the aim of 250,000 premises covered by 2014, and 10,000 businesses connected by 2015. So far, 16,000 premises have availability of FTTC with the aim of having 90,000 by the end of March 2012.

For more information the website for this project is: www.superfastcornwall.org or you can follow the team on Twitter via @sfastcornwall

Movember – Day 22

It is day 22 in my bid to grow a ‘tache for Movember. The response to this cause has been great, not just financially, but making people aware of men’s health issue. Men historically are not the best when it comes to getting a health check, or going to the doctors.

Many people have been generous with their donations to me, and the team I am in. I would like to thank them. However, one act of generosity have really humbled me. If you remember I blogged about receiving a letter in the post with £50 in it. With the money was a simple typed letter saying ‘a donation for your participation in Movember’.

In Monday’s post was another letter, with another £50 inside. Again, no name, address; just a simple note saying:

“Please find enclosed the remaining half of my donation to you for your participation in Movember. I apologize for sending it to you as two seperate amounts; this was purely due to available funds at the time” 

Apologize? Who ever you are, you have no need to apologize. I only wish I could thank you in person for your outstanding generosity. Thank you, thank you.

Now for another ‘scare the kids’ picture of me sporting my day 22 ‘tache.

Lastly, If you can, you can donate HERE

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