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Gorsedh Kernow 7 September, 2013

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in Personal.
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Gorsedh 1

 

Today was my first ever visit to the Gorsedh ceremony (born and bred in Cornwall, and still so many things I haven’t seen). It was a colourful occasion – held this year in Penryn on the site of the historic Glasney College – celebrating the Cornish culture, language and heritage.

Gorsedh 2

 

There was traditional music and dancing as well as recognition of those, both in Cornwall and around the world, who had done their bit for Cornish culture and heritage. I was there deputising for Council Leader John Pollard who, along with Julian German and Bert Biscoe, had donned the blue robes by virtue of being a Cornish Bard.

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For me it was a demonstration that nationalism doesn’t have to be of the BNP/EDL variety – instead it can be, as the Gorsedh is, a celebration of culture, heritage and inclusiveness.

Gorsedh 4

Steve Knightley wins Wadebridge East 6 September, 2013

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Cornwall Councillor Steve KnightleySteve Knightley has won the Wadebridge East by-election for the Liberal Democrats. The vote was triggered by the resignation of the Independent Collin Brewer. In the end, the result was close:

Steve Knightley (Lib Dem) 408
Independent 399
Conservative 217
UKIP 202
Labour 58

It was a particularly disappointing night for UKIP, who slipped back from their result in May, and the Tories, who would have hoped to have made more of an impact given this was on their PPC’s doorstep.

It was a great result for Dan Rogerson MP and the North Cornwall Lib Dems and I am sure Steve will make a great Councillor for Wadebridge and Cornwall as a whole. I’m looking forward to working with him.

Elections 4 May, 2013

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The dust is starting to settle on a dramatic set of elections to Cornwall Council. The authority has lost some good people from all political groups and gained some interesting new faces in their place. The electorate have given those of us who remain a good deal to think about.

In terms of my own division I am truly grateful to the people in the seven rural parishes I represent for returning me as Councillor. It is one of the great cliches of elections, but it is genuinely a humbling experience being elected to represent your area.

As far as the raw numbers are concerned there are clearly interesting days ahead: Lib Dems 36 seats, Independents 35, Tories 31, Labour 8, UKIP 6, MK 4, ‘Unspecified’ 2 and 1 Green Councillor. If there’s any message at all in the midst of that it is that we will all have to do a lot more listening this time around.

Forgotten but not gone… 24 January, 2013

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After months of silence it was his chance to – as he saw it – put the record straight, deal with a few myths, start to repair his legacy. No, I’m not talking about Lance Armstrong (there was at least a partial admission of fault in his interview with Oprah), I’m referring to the erstwhile Leader of Cornwall Council’s re-emergence on James Churchfield’s breakfast show on Radio Cornwall this morning.

Alec RobertsonLike the Armstrong appearance, there does appear to be a strategy at play here and Cllr Robertson started the interview very much ‘on-message’. The Lavery years had, apparently, been a successful period of strong leadership by consensus, ‘savings’ (or ‘cuts’ as we might call them) were delivered, privatisation schemes were launched and so on, and the former Leader even tried to claim the ‘credit’ for some of these things. (I imagine there was a certain amount of choking on breakfast cornflakes from his colleagues when he tried to paint a picture of a touchy-feely Cabinet of consensus – others remember it differently.)

But it didn’t take long before the settling of scores was alluded to. It was, of course, largely the fault of those dastardly Lib Dems for asking awkward questions all the time, life in a coalition was hard (we know) and there was a certain amount of ideological opposition to ‘the programme’.

Then, after an attempt at magnanimity, he turned his fire on his Tory successor. He said (and, since I don’t have a transcript of the broadcast, I may paraphrase slightly) “This authority hasn’t been Conservative-led since October.” Jim Currie could not call himself a Tory after the assassination that took place last Autumn, there has been a “hiatus” since and the whole thing is falling apart at the seams. And while nothing was said about Fiona Ferguson – a long-time internal thorn in his side – there is clearly still an unburied hatchet or two there.

Asked if he would like to be Leader again he was very quick to rule nothing out. The Tory rumour mill – easily the most efficient part of their operation at County Hall – is letting it be known that Alec is putting together a ‘Shadow, Shadow Cabinet’ in preparation for a triumphant return after May. Obviously Jim Currie won’t be involved, but I wonder what involvement Cllr Ferguson, the current Leader of the Tory Group, can expect. At the moment it’s difficult to tell which of the three Tory factions is in charge.

The three Tory factions causing chaos and instability for Cornwall 22 January, 2013

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On one level, at least you could say that there’s rarely a dull moment as far as Cornwall Council’s warring Tory group is concerned. On another level, you would be perfectly entitled to wonder who on earth is supposed to be running the show while vital decisions need to be taken regarding the future of public services in Cornwall.

Fiona FergusonFiona Ferguson, the Leader of the Conservative Group, has resigned from the Council’s Tory-led Cabinet (I’m not making this up) apparently over the use of voice recognition software, although few doubt there are deeper internal Tory rifts at play here. Cllr Ferguson, you may remember, was a long-running thorn in the side of the previous Tory Leader of the Council, Alec Robertson, before he was eventually overthrown by Jim Currie. After around three months as gamekeeper it would seem that Fiona has missed her role as poacher too much and has returned to her more familiar capacity of making life difficult for a Tory Leader of the Council.

This means that Cornwall’s Conservatives – who are supposed to be the Council’s leading group, remember – are effectively split into three. First, there is the Jim CurrieJim Currie faction – as Tory Leader of the Council he commands a certain level of Conservative support both inside and outside the Cabinet. Next there is the Fiona Ferguson faction – strong among Tory backbenchers but also with a level of support within the Cabinet. Finally there is the Alec Robertson faction – those who remain loyal to the former Council Leader and who (it is strongly rumoured) are making plans for his triumphant return to power after the elections.

Alec RobertsonIf I were a distant observer of all of this intrigue I would probably find the endless in-fighting within Cornwall’s Conservatives highly entertaining. However, the Council Leader himself has admitted that the Tory/Indie coalition will leave the authority with a £21m black hole in its finances and a desperate plan for an improbable 5% hike in Council Tax next year.

Now the Council is without a full time Cabinet Member in charge of producing a budget.

What must be clear to anyone observing the endless Conservative navel-gazing at County Hall is that it’s time for Cornwall’s Tories to stop indulging themselves through pointless personality clashes and actually get on with the job.

The days after… 18 October, 2012

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It’s been a busy couple of days…

Much has already been written about Tuesday’s dramatic events at Cornwall Council (you can read the perspectives of Alex Folkes, Jude Robinson and Andrew Wallis and there is more from ‘thisiscornwall’ here). From my perspective it was the most extraordinary day I have seen in local government. Not only did we see a Leader removed by Full Council, there was also the sight of open divisions within the administration parties (Tory & Independent), two competing candidates from the ‘coalition’, security guards stationed behind the Cabinet and four spectacular resignations to round the day off.

What emerged was a ‘new’ administration headed by the former Deputy Leader of the Council, Jim Currie. This in itself was an extraordinary selection, as he was elected Leader by a narrow margin with the support of Lib Dems, Mebyon Kernow, some Indies and some Tories, while the bulk of his own Conservative Group support his Indie challenger, Neil Burden. Interesting times indeed…

Jim has already made clear that he will only be a caretaker until next year’s elections – he will not be standing again. He has also promised a reawakening of democracy at County Hall and a good, hard stare at the previous administration’s privatisation plans. We hope he stands by these promises and, rest assured, we will be holding him to account throughout his time in office.

The new Leader also faces a number of challenges over the coming months, not least the annual Budget. We will listen to what he has to say – we will support him when we think he is doing the right thing and we will oppose when we think he is wrong but, as an opposition group, we will make sure we question all the way. I hope we can help him succeed, as the interests of Cornwall must be paramount.

I have great personal sympathy for Alec Robertson – Tuesday must have been an incredibly difficult day for him, and I and most others would have preferred not to have had to put him through that. But Tuesday has given Cornwall Council a chance to start rebuilding bridges – let’s hope the new administration has learned the lessons of the old one.

Jim Currie’s resignation 10 October, 2012

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Jim Currie’s sensational resignation last night proves, among other things, that Alec Robertson’s problems are not – as he may have tried to portray them – the result of party political manoeuvring by those outside his Tory/Indie coalition. Quite the reverse – they demonstrate the rot that has taken over the heart of his administration.

Cllr Currie is a former Leader of the Conservative Group at County Hall and was, until yesterday, the Deputy Leader of the Council and the Cabinet Member in charge of the Council’s finances. Yet his resignation letter (reproduced below) points to the fundamental lack of trust that has gripped the administration for the bulk of their time in office.

In a damning paragraph (referring to the Leader’s apparent softening of his position on privatisation) Jim writes: “I welcome your somewhat ambiguous offer to respect Full Council decisions on the 23rd October but I know you will never let go”.

When your own hand-picked Deputy smells a rat you know something’s up.

The importance of the No Confidence motion on the 16th grows greater by the day. As Jude Robinson writes, Lib Dem, Indie, MK, Labour and even Tory Councillors are working together on Shared Services and the No Confidence motion, not for any narrow political advantage, but because there is now a clear understanding that all of this chaos has to stop.

The personality clashes in this saga point to a Leadership which has lost control and is now completely out of touch, but let’s not forget that this is also the administration that tried to dismantle Localism, demonstrated a wilfully casual attitude to democracy and presided over the chaos of the new waste collection contract, to name just a few failures.

The growing view among Councillors of all flavours is that Tuesday 16th October represents the best and only opportunity to stop the rot.

Here is the full text of Jim Currie’s resignation letter:

Alec

I am resigning from the Cabinet today as I feel that I have pushed the cause of retaining Council control over Joint Ventures as far as I can with the Cabinet.

The financial risks involved with the rush into the new Joint Venture proposals are unacceptable. The JV is basically too large to control. We have wasted £42m+ on the Unitary, £42m+ on the Incinerator and we are now proposing to risk a great deal more on the Joint Venture.

I welcome your somewhat ambiguous offer to respect Full Council decisions on the 23rd October but I know you will never let go.

I could not leave local government with billions of pounds of Cornish Taxpayers money at risk and on my conscience.

Alec, this matter has never been personal.

Yours aye

Jim 

The Leader writes… 9 October, 2012

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You may have heard the Leader of the Council on Radio Cornwall yesterday (there’s a summary and response about 2 hours in) revealing the compromise on his privatisation plan that he agreed with the ‘rebel wing’ of the Conservative Group at their crisis meeting on Friday night. He also wrote to Councillors yesterday to outline the thinking behind what was definitely not a u-turn (I’ve reproduced the letter in its entirety below).

There’s an understandable level of cynicism about what many see as a tactical move to shore up the administration’s position ahead of next week’s No Confidence vote, but we must try to take the Leader at face value. While it seems strange that Council will have to make its views known twice on this matter, he is nevertheless clear that he will accept the view of the majority of Members present (as per the Council’s constitution) and end the privatisation process, if that is indeed what Councillors decide.

However, it does rather seem that the administration is missing an opportunity here (unless, of course, it is an attempt to back the rebels into a corner – perish the thought). Alec talks in his letter about Members having all the facts before making a decision – I believe they should have all the options too.

The Leader made the extraordinary admission on the radio yesterday that “We haven’t fully considered the alternatives” (although he backtracks from that in his letter). The truth remains that a ‘Third Way’, where the Council and the NHS work together to create a publicly run alternative, has not received a fraction of the resource and commitment that have been thrown at the ideologically-motivated privatisation scheme. In fact, the Third Way was dismissed right at the beginning – before a business plan was even looked at.

Why not pause the whole process until a new Council is elected next May and put three fully worked up options on the table: the status quo, the privatisation option and the Third Way? That way a decision can be made with all the facts and all the options. Or was the latest announcement made with the next fifteen days in mind, rather than the next fifteen years?

Dear colleagues

Over the past few weeks a number of Members have expressed their concerns over the Strategic Partnership proposal.  As you know we have also received a petition calling for the matter to be debated again before a final decision is made.

Following this morning’s interview on Radio Cornwall I would like to take this opportunity to explain the background to my announcement on the future of the Strategic Partnership and clarify the position of the Cabinet on the forthcoming debate.  

The Strategic Partnership proposal presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Cornwall and I am concerned that we have lost sight of this in a row over democracy.  As I said this morning, this issue affects people’s lives and jobs and we need to stop playing politics and focus on what is best for Cornwall.

There has been a great deal of comment in the media on the potential risks of going ahead with the proposal and I have personally been accused of ignoring the views of both Members and the public.  This is not true.  Both I and other members of the Cabinet are very aware of the concerns felt by some Members and have offered to meet with them to discuss the issues.

Some Members have questioned the potential level of funding cuts we will face in the coming years and are arguing that we should wait until we know the details before making this decision.  However I don’t believe we can afford the luxury of waiting if we want to maintain the services we currently provide for people in Cornwall.  As the Deputy Prime Minister recently announced, the inconvenient truth is that the country faces further belt tightening and, therefore, it isn’t scaremongering to suggest we could face a further £100m reduction in our budget from 2015.  This reduction could have a devastating impact on our budget and we need to take action now to protect our services.

Under the proposal the two companies bidding for the contract – BT and CSC- will be legally required to deliver at least £5 million savings within the first two years, with at least a further £5 million savings per year thereafter, as well as creating a minimum of 500 net new jobs in Cornwall.   Not only would this help bring significant investment and employment into Cornwall from a multi national company, these savings would also play a key role in protecting services from the impact of further cuts in our funding.

However, while I personally believe that going ahead with the proposal is in the best interests of the people of Cornwall, I would like to make it clear that the Cabinet will respect the vote of the Council when the issue is debated at a future meeting.

During this morning’s interview I was asked why we needed to have a further debate on this issue as they consider the Council had already made its views clear on 4 September.  As I have said previously it is vital that Members have all the facts before them when they debate this matter. 

Unfortunately the decision not to go into confidential session on 4 September meant that we were unable to provide details of the bids from the two companies.  The reality is that both companies are offering to deliver even greater savings and create more jobs than was set out in the original specification.  This can only be good news for both the Council and the people of Cornwall.

We will be holding confidential briefings prior to the Council debate to provide all Members with detailed information about the two offers.  I hope that as many Members as possible will attend these session so they can make an informed decision about whether we should go ahead with the proposal.

The impact of further cuts in our funding means that the status quo is not an option.  If we don’t do this we will need to find the savings somewhere else, resulting in a real threat of significant reduction in frontline services inCornwall.

Some Members have suggested that we have not properly investigated alternatives to the Strategic Partnership, including the possibility of the Council integrating its IT systems with heath partners themselves rather than joining with a private sector partner.  I can assure you that both this and a number of other options have been considered.

The reality is that neither the Council nor health organisations in Cornwall have the capacity, the expertise or the resources to deliver such a project, nor would it deliver the level of savings we require.  In fact it could actually result in a reduction in jobs, not an increase. Trying to implement such a wholescale integration of our IT systems without support from a third party with a proven track record in delivering such complex projects would also be extremely high risk and would require the Council to provide substantial financial guarantees. 

Both these companies have the necessary experience in implementing such projects and also the enthusiasm and ambition to work with us to create a new company which will be able to sell these services outside Cornwall – bringing in millions of pounds of investment and creating hundreds of new jobs.

This is now a very important decision for every Member of the Council and one that we need to get right if we are to protect services for people inCornwall. 

I believe that setting up a Strategic Partnership is the right decision and I am hopeful that Members will support the proposal once they have access to all the facts.  However if a majority of the Members present at the debate vote against the proposal, then it will not go ahead.

With best wishes

Alec Robertson CC 

 

Council Cabinet split ahead of no-confidence vote 29 September, 2012

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Cornwall Council’s Tory/Indie Cabinet’s position on their proposed privatisation project is looking very shaky at the minute. The administration’s problems on this issue are well-documented, and their attitude towards the strongly expressed view of the Council’s democratically elected membership have led to a public petition (which nears the 5,000 signatures required to trigger a Full Council debate) and a motion of no confidence in the Leader. Now senior figures in the administration have been unleashed on the Council’s email system to do their best to undermine the one member of the Cabinet who actually bothered to attend all the meetings that examined the proposed deal in detail.

The Deputy Leader of the Council and I have had our differences over the years, but his recent email to other Councillors laid bare his genuine, well-informed concerns about the process the Cabinet is trying to push through.

The inevitable backlash from within has begun. What looked like an officer-prepared rebuttal was sent around yesterday by a Cabinet Member, followed this morning by the administration’s emailer-in-chief throwing around phrases like “factually incorrect information” and “damaging allegations”. (It’s worth noting that the latter Cabinet Member didn’t attend one of the Panel meetings that scrutinised the deal.)

This is all a bit depressing. Rather than listen to the concerns of their most well-informed member (or the majority of the Council for that matter) the administration instead embark on a policy of undermining and vilification in an attempt to justify their current position.

I didn’t sign the request for a no-confidence vote. I perhaps naively hoped that there was still time for the Council’s Leadership to listen to the views of the Council and – crucially – the world outside. It is clear that the bunker mentality on the top floor at County Hall is now way beyond a joke. Cornwall Council has a chance to make a change at the top on 16th October – it has become very difficult to think of a reason not to take that chance.

Another Marathon 19 April, 2012

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A quick shout out to my friends Phil and Faye who are once again putting themselves through the torture of the London Marathon this weekend. Complete madness, but the best of luck to both of you…

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