The 2013 Porthleven Raft Race

Sunday saw the annual Porthleven Raft Race take place after a two week delay due to poor weather. As ever, the turnout for the race was brilliant with some really creative rafts taking to the water. I was part of the Porthleven Community Group raft and probably like other participants, the first ten minutes afloat was critical as only then will you know if your raft is ‘seaworthy.’ I am pleased to say no raft sunk during the race.

Well done to all who took part in the race and those who helped construct the crafts.

Here is a selection of pictures from the event:

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An interesting bunch of gentlemen…

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Is this the latest SBS terror squad?

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May the Force be with you

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The starting line

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Impact of Welfare Reform in Cornwall

The impact of the welfare reform is now starting to show in the data Cornwall Council collects.

The emerging data is showing a rapid increase in rent arrears for those affected by under-occupation charge – bedroom tax – in Cornwall Council owned housing.

Currently 560 of Cornwall Housing – Cornwall Council owned properties – tenants are in arrears due to the impact of the Bedroom Tax. This is a 140% increase from April to June 2013. I should point out Cornwall Housing has 10,500 properties under its control; so in percentage terms this is 5% of tenants.  As yet, there is no data which includes all the 19 RSL operating in Cornwall, but I am reassuringly assured this is being worked on. Once this has been collated, the council will have a better understanding of the impact the welfare reform is having.

The collection rate for Council Tax is down, not by a big percentage, but a drop nonetheless. To date Cornwall Council has issued 48,600 reminders. This is a 40% increase compared to last year. Though it would be incorrect to say the increase is all down to the welfare reforms.  And with changes to the council tax benefit system, Cornwall is seeing 20,000 new payers of council tax. Out of this figure, 5,500 (28%) of new payers are in arrears with 1,000 households receiving a court summons.

The Council has seen a big increase in enquiries relating to welfare reform with 40% more benefit enquiries from March/April 2012 to March/April 2013. There has also been a 50% increase in revenue enquiries and 40% more ‘face to face’ enquiries regarding Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit.

As for Cornwall’s 23 food-banks, they have seen a 35% increase  in usage between Q4 2011 and Q4 2012. No doubt this figure will rise again by Q4 2013.

The data used on the post is taken from the 1st Quarter 2013 -14.

840 extra school places approved, but you cannot have all the money to do it……

Back in July, Cornwall Council were told by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) that our bid and funding for an extra 840 school places had been approved. The amount of funding the council had bid for was £18.8m.

All those who worked on this were over-the-moon on the success of the bid. And a letter was received by the Director of Children’s Service to confirm our bid had been succesful. This money would help the eight – already identified – schools which are facing huge pressures on pupil placements the ability to extent their facilities.

However, when the actual settlement came through, the amount was in fact£7.8m. This massive shortfall of £11m makes it impossible to deliver the project. Even scaling back the project to a very minimum, the cost to do the work will still come to £11.2m. Still a shortfall of £4.2m.

When I was told of the letter and the amount of funding, I was less than gentlemanly like in the choice of words. I really could not understand how the council had been so mislead.

In response to the lack of the full amount of funding, the council has been and is still lobbying the EFA for the full settlement.

I really hope the EFA reconsiders, as these 840 extra places are needed. Or the alternative is in certain areas there will be no places from our primary children and alternative schools would have to be used. This could involve the council having to pick up the transport costs.

My worry is if the EFA do not fund these projects fully, then the council will have to look at alternative options for funding. This is further complicated by the very fact Cornwall Council is not awash with money. And there would be some very stark choices to be made to find the funding. If it cannot find the funding, then these schools might not get the extra places they so desperately need.

This is the statement I released today:

 Cornwall Council’s Lead Member for Children and Young People, Andrew Wallis, has expressed concern at the news that the Government has underfunded the provision of additional places at eight primary schools in Cornwall and says that he is lobbying Ministers to reconsider the decision.

The Council originally submitted a bid in April to the Education Funding Agency (EFA) for £18.8M of Targeted Basic Need Funding to provide an additional 840 school places in Cornwall. The bid was to provide additional places in eight areas where there is the greatest pressure on school places, including at schools in St Austell, Newquay, Bodmin and Redruth.

The authority heard in July that its bid had been successful and that all eight school expansion schemes would be funded.   A letter sent to  Trevor Doughty, Director of Children’s Services, on 30 July stated “The Targeted Basic Need Programme will fund the provision of new, high quality school places in locations experiencing basic need pressures in order to prepare for future rises in pupil numbers. It gives additional support to those local authorities experiencing the greatest pressure on places by funding new academies and free schools as well as enabling investment to expand outstanding and good schools with high levels of demand”.

The Council was also told that officials in the Education Funding Agency would be providing its officers with further information in the near future.

The authority was then contacted by the EFA on 1 August requesting additional information in support of the application.  However, instead of confirming that the Council would be receiving the £18m originally requested, the authority was told that it had only been allocated £7.8m for all eight schemes- £11m less than the bid submitted and previously approved.   The letter from the EFA stated that the level of funding was based on expected construction costs, which are calculated on a national construction framework for the building of new schools, rather than the expansion of existing schools.

Faced with this shock announcement, Council officers immediately reviewed the plans to see if an alternative solution could be identified which could deliver the urgently needed school places within the reduced funding. Unfortunately this showed that even adopting a scaled down approach involving a modular building programme would still cost around £11.2m – leaving a minimum shortfall of £4.2m.

The Council wrote to the EFA on 16 August expressing significant concern over the amount of the allocation and requesting that the total award should be increased to reflect the actual level of building costs in Cornwall.   This request is currently being considered. 

A meeting was held with the eight schools identified for expansion on 17 September so that the Council could share this information with the headteachers and Chairs of Governors.   The Council and the schools concerned are currently seeking alternative routes to secure additional funding to ensure these school places are provided, however a solution has not yet been identified.

Andrew Wallis, the Council’s Lead Member for Children and Young People, said “To say I am disappointed with the Government would be a massive understatement.

“I find it hard to believe that on one hand the Government informs the Council that we have all our bids and funding approved, but then find out the actual funding does not even cover the basic build costs. This leaves the Council in a difficult position regarding having to provide extra school places without the correct funding to do so”.

 

A Review of the Short Break Service for Disabled Children

The reason for this post is to completely dismiss an anonymous letter which has been delivered to various media agencies claiming Cornwall Council is to cease the short break service for disabled children by closing all the current centres.

This letter is completely untrue and very damaging. Letters like this cause undue stress and anxiety to families and users of services, especially when they are completely untrue.

The letter is as follows:

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A review is currently happening, but this is in a very early stage, and this review has some very draft ideas on the future of the service. I will also say any proposal will be subject to a full consultation with families, users and staff before any decision is made on the service. It is also a statutory service, so we cannot just cut it completely.

Furthermore, The Parent Carer Council has been involved in the early stages of the review by being asked on just some of the ideas. And to be perfectly clear, there has never been the option of the stopping the service.

You may ask why there is a review? This is due to the budget pressures Cornwall Council is facing now, and for the next four years. Be under no illusion the reduction in funding will result in just about every service the council provides being reviewed. The council has made no secret of the position it finds itself in, and most people know the council has already had a difficult four years with £170m worth of cuts. Now it will have to find a further £196m for the next four years.

I have issued a statement in reference to the anon letter which will I hope will reassure people. It is as follows:

There are no proposals to close all residential short break centres in Cornwall.

The Council is committed to supporting children and young people with disabilities and their parents and carers. We recognise the importance of short breaks for children and young people and for their parents and carers and, unlike many other local authorities facing severe reductions in budgets, have continued to fund a wide range of short breaks.

Each year has seen the delivery of short breaks for disabled children growing, year on year, with many more families now being able to access a range of short breaks including residential short breaks, family based short breaks, direct payments, personal budgets, group activities, and individual packages of support.

Last year the Council delivered 842 short breaks to disabled children and young people in Cornwall. This represents a financial commitment of approximately £5 million in short breaks alone. In total the Council spends around £10 million per annum supporting children with special educational needs and disabled children and their families, one of the highest levels of spending in the country.

A review of the local authority directly provided residential short break services has recently been undertaken, which makes recommendations about how the Council can continue to be proactive in meeting an increased demand for short breaks at a time when there are further reductions in government grants to local authorities to provide services. The budget available to Children’s Services has been reduced by over £17 million in the last 4 years.

We recognise that any proposed change will be unsettling and have already started to talk to parents and carers about the challenge of continuing to offer such a high level of short breaks at a time of reducing Government funding.

We will continue to offer a range of quality short breaks, in partnership with both public and independent sector providers, in line with our statutory duty for those disabled children and their families who need this support. However, the way in which short breaks are provided will evolve, as we continue to balance local needs with the resources available to the Council. One of the most significant changes is the significant investment the Council has made in direct payments which is now available to 259 disabled children and families, giving them the flexibility and support they need to live a good family life.

Any proposed change to services will go through extensive, open and transparent consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. This is a commitment that has already been made to parents and carer groups. Before that can happen, proposals have to go through the Council’s formal governance processes for debate and scrutiny.

I hope this statement and blog post reassures people that the service is not ending, but may have some changes to how it is provide due to the pressures the council is facing. But any changes will be subject to discussions with users before a decision is made.

Young People’s Question Time at Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council hosted a Young People’s Question Time in the council chamber today. Organised by the young people themselves via the Cornwall Youth Forum and the MYPs, the event was split into two panels. The audience was drawn from various schools in Cornwall.

The first panel consisted of George Eustice MP, Cllr John Wood – Chairman of Cornwall Council, The Director of Public Health and three MYPs Amy, Tabitha and Talia. I was invited to the second panel and was joined by Dan Rogerson MP, Anna – Senior Manager Directorate Support of Children’s Service and three MYPs, Jaspa, Tia and Ben.

The topic for the second panel were on the Curriculum for Life, youth employment and opportunities. It was good to hear all the panel members agree on the idea of the Curriculum for Life, which includes subjects of relationships and sexual education, financial education, political education and Health and Wellbeing which includes mental health issues being mandatory taught in schools.

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Many of the young people in the audience raised the worry of debt by going to university and actual jobs once they have finished. The panel spoke on how it was important for young people to get the best advice before they make their educational choices. Explained how people only start to pay them back when you receive a certain income. In fact, many people never pay back their loans within the repayment time.

The last topic, public transport, got the most questions from the audience. Questions raised from the lack of a reliable service, or service at all. the state of the buses and the huge cost of using public transport. The young people asked why they cannot have a concessionary fare scheme like those over 65 receive. Sadly, the panel had to explain that many bus routes are run without any subsidy from the council and therefore, the council had no say in the service. The same with the pricing. I wish it was different, and there was money available to subsidies more routes.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the event and I hope the young people in the audience got the answers they wanted. It would be good to have more events like this, with different panel guests drawn from areas that concern young people

The Second Town and Parish Council Summit

On Saturday, Cornwall Councils Cabinet hosted the second town and parish council summit at Kingsley Village.

The event had a reasonable turn out of around 90 people from 50 councils. It would have been nice to seem more representation from the 218 odd town and parish councils in Cornwall. But it is not that easy to find a suitable date or location that pleases all.

The town and parish council were given a budget briefing on the current position and the difficulties for the budget in the next four years.

Questions were asked by the representatives of the town and parish councils; many of the budget, plus others on the individual areas of the representatives. There were the usual questions on planning, the incinerator, car parking, buses and decisions Cornwall Council had previously made.

Sadly only one question was on the Portfolio I cover. But at least it was better than none!

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I hope the Councillors and clerks from the town and parish councils in attendance got the message Cornwall Council really wants to work with the town and parish councils. However, we know we are not always going to agree on every idea or request. But we must find solutions together because the future of local government will be very different from where it currently is now.

Budget, Budget and Budgets

Cornwall Council is in the process of formulating the council’s budget for 2014/15 and beyond. The picture is stark and for those who thought the last four years of budget reductions (£170m) were harsh, the next four years are set to get a lot worse.

For the 2014/15 budget, the council has to find a further £23m in savings for this period alone. Thanks to the Governments stinging cuts to Local Authorities. To put this into pounds, shilling and pence, the council would have to raise Council Tax by 19% just to cover the £23m. Currently, the proposal for raising the Council Tax is 2%. This figure is the maximum a primary council can raise without holding a referendum.

Of course there has been discussion for bigger rise in Council Tax, but the feed back from Members and the public is this would not be winnable via a referendum. And if you held a referendum, this would cost roughly £750,000. Which would have to be found from the budget.

I wish I could say the extra £23m was it, but the council is will have to fund a further £196m for the next four years. This is far more than has been previously saved, with much of the previous savings coming from ‘back-office’ functions and realigning services. However, and worryingly, any further reduction in back-office or realigning a service would result in those services being unable to be delivered.

The council is faced with the difficult dilemma; which services does it carry on providing, and which ones are either stopped, or handed to other organisations and agencies – including the private and voluntary sector.

And as the Portfolio Holder for Children and Young People I will have to make some very difficult decisions in the coming months and years. I am just glad I have Children and Young People PAC to help with those difficult decision. It is not going to be easy.

Official Youth Representation on a Cornwall Council Committee

Today saw a massive step in forward of getting young people involved in decision making at Cornwall Council. After a few years of talking about and working on the idea via a Single Issue Panel (SIP) of the now defunct Children’s Scrutiny Committee; a very positive decision has been made by the Children and Young People Portfolio Advisory Committee (CYPPAC) to allow official youth representation on the CYPPAC. This now means Members of Youth Parliament (MYP) will now be part of the CYPPAC committee structure.

By having the MYPs taking part, policies and services that concern youth can have a very early youth view. This will lead to I hope services that the youth want. Today’s decision will allow the MYPs to have access to all the relevant information enabling them to take part in the decision making process. With this information The MYPs will also consult other young people groups – via a clear structure – asking for comments before coming to the PAC to feed in the views of children and young people. It would be great if every youth group had a direct access to the CYPPAC, but that would not be feasible.

I feel this is just the first rung of a very important ladder of getting young people involved in how the Council carries out it business and more importantly, influences polices. In time I hope other PACs will a adopt similar process.

For me, this was one of my main priorities as a former member of the scrutiny committee and now as the Portfolio Holder for Children and Young People, something I fully support. I did hope the PAC would give a unanimous decision of having official youth representation on the PAC, but sadly, one member decided to vote against the proposal.

The document surrounding the process and original report can be found HERE

Visiting the Brooke Young Fathers Project

Last night I and my Cabinet colleague Judith Haycock – whose responsibility is Adults and Health – visited the Brooke Young Fathers project. The project is run from the St Austell Children’s Centre every Tuesday from 6:30pm till 9pm; and was set-up after research highlighted young fathers rarely used family services.

The group sessions focus on practical parenting skills, looking at everything from household budgeting to the importance of play. They also cover the subject of safety in the home. The project also allows fathers to share concerns, and in turn be given the right advice to enable them to help with parenting.

For me, the meeting was inspiring. Here was a group of young men who in their own words were were not very well engaged before they came to the project. And from attending the project, the young fathers get the right advice and support, which in turn helps the young fathers deal with parenthood. From my own experience, becoming a father is a daunting prospect, with no manual on how to do it.

The fathers raised several point to Judith and me. Many questions were on the lack of support that is available to young fathers. For instance the Young Fathers programme is only run in St. Austell. This has to be addressed. Other points were on employment and the lack of good paying employment in their area. One father travels to Exeter each day for work; because he wants to work and there is a lack of jobs for his skills in his local area. Others raised the point how they apply for jobs, but never hear back from the employer.

One father who has been with the project for the last two years is now volunteering for the project and wants to become a youth worker. So he can help other fathers who feel no-one cares about them.

I feel more must be done to help young fathers Cornwall wide, and will be speaking with my colleagues to see how we can facilitate projects like the Brooke Young Fathers project.

For more information on parent services click HERE

Bulwark Residents Group and the Helston Carnival

Helston Carnival was held on Saturday 7th September. This event has seen a steady increase in participating floats, and this was the best for many years with so many entrants.

The Bulwark Residents Group has been entering the carnival for the last three years. And impressively been rather successful by winning the best small float for the last few years. Last year the group won best over all float of the carnival. This year the group decided to enter as recycling heroes. This was to raise awareness of recycling.

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As you can see from the previous picture the group looked fantastic. A lot of effort went into the groups float and the costumes. This is down to the hard work of the group who spend hours if not days on making sure the float and the participants look the best they can.

The next picture is my costume, and the rules the group make – which I have to adhere to – is they make it and I have to wear it. This always has me worried until I see the costume and see the effort they put into it.

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Congratulations should go to the organisers of the Helston Carnival for all the hard work they put into this event. Without this work, the event would have disappeared like so many community other events have. A well done should also go to all the other participants in the carnival, who make this a great day for all. The best float of the carnival went to The Blue Anchor, for their summer holiday float.

Lastly, a special thank you should go to the National Trust at Penrose Estate, who kindly supplied the trailer and transport to pull it, and a one of its rangers to drive the float around Helston. Without this support, the group would not be able to enter a float.

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