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Tweeting from The Bunker 25 January, 2012

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in News.
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Cornwall Council’s Cabinet met today to discuss a number of important issues (not least their handbrake turn on the buses) but the story that will probably make tomorrow’s papers will be the Leader’s extraordinary outburst about the use of Twitter.

Those with reasonable medium-term memories will recall a brief storm over Councillors using the social networking site a couple of years ago, but it is now accepted as the norm (like it or not) in council chambers, courtrooms and even Parliament, with many viewing it as a more accessible way of following proceedings than the traditional method of sitting through a meeting waiting for the item (or items) of interest.

Cornwall Council’s Leader has, however, decided to park his throne right in the path of the oncoming wave of social media with his unilateral ban on the use of Twitter at today’s meeting. He read out some (admittedly less than complimentary) tweets from Members and announced that he was using the Council’s recently passed broadcasting protocol to ban any further interaction with the outside world.

Some will say that Councillors shouldn’t be tweeting during meetings at all and, although I disagree, I do understand that point of view. However, in this case the dissenting tweets came from people who were not voting members of the Cabinet and therefore not participating directly in the meeting (apart from one rogue tweet from within the inner circle). The Leader’s ban attempted to put a stop to the external debate and affected not only councillors, but journalists and members of the public too.

It’s difficult to understand the purpose of this beyond suffocating dissent and it’s questionable whether he is actually entitled to do this.

The Leader’s actions today have been nothing but counterproductive for him. The stories he wanted to put out will have slipped down the news agenda and his administration now looks even more paranoid and controlling.

The Leader has often complained about the accusations of a ‘bunker mentality’ but he really doesn’t help himself sometimes. Nor does it do a great deal for his oft-repeated claim of ‘openness and transparency’.

Cornwall Council’s Budget 30 November, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in News, Politics.
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While George Osborne was standing up in Parliament outlining the misery which lies in store for (nearly) everyone in Britain over the next six years, Cornwall Council was staging its own equivalent at New County Hall – the Tory-led administration’s budget.

To be fair to him, the Leader of the Council did attempt to sound a little more upbeat than the Chancellor but he was working with pretty thin gruel. It’s hard to make a package which includes losing half the bus routes, closing half the toilets and accelerating the decline of the road network sound attractive, but he was keen to try.

We heard much about how “bold” and “brave” the administration had been in “going deep and going early” (although not a great deal about how the switch to unitary status had saved them from slashing public services even further) and there was a fairly shameless attempt to take credit for a number of schemes which had been put in place by Cornwall Council’s predecessor authorities. The problem was that we learned very little about what the Council’s coalition (or “shared administration” as one Indie Cabinet Member was at pains to point out) actually plans to do over the coming months.

We shouldn’t be surprised about that. There has never been a meaningful policy statement from the administration, no matter how many times we’ve asked. Some months ago I asked the Leader if there was a ‘big idea’ at the heart of the Tory-led Cabinet. All he was able to do was shrug his shoulders and mutter something about “managing the crisis”.

And there lies the beating heart of this administration. They are managers, and not especially gifted ones at that. The “go early, go deep” plan didn’t come from them, it came from the senior directors who spend so much of their time spoon-feeding the Cabinet (to recycle a phrase from one of their leading lights). The drive for a Stadium for Cornwall (whether you like the idea or not) is an officer project, as is the Cornish EMA plan.

All the Cabinet have to do is make sure they are asking the right questions of the officers. Unfortunately part of the backdrop of this year’s budget has been their failure to do even that. Car parking revenue was a disaster they were collectively unable to prevent – despite warnings from us and others – as was the situation with the bus routes; they made a mistake with last year’s Adult Care budget which had to be hastily corrected this time around (they even had the brass neck to try to put a positive spin on this); and two weeks ago the Leader was unable to answer my simple question about the level of Council Tax for the coming year. Nothing especially “bold” or “brave” in any of that.

To help out we put forward four amendments. Firstly, we proposed that the Council accepts the grant from central government designed to deliver a Council Tax freeze this year. Secondly, we proposed a grant pot to help set up community bus projects when we find out the full scale of the administration’s calamity on this. Thirdly, we called for a scheme to protect and enhance Cornwall’s harbours. Finally, we proposed that any material changes to the budget should be examined by the Council’s Scrutiny Committees rather than simply being nodded through by someone in the top floor bunker.

Happily the administration accepted all of these points, although it turns out that it was only because senior officers recommended that they did. Nevertheless, we were at least able to put some clarity into a budget which otherwise asks more questions than it answers.

Of course, the budget was passed. The Tories were whipped into line and the Indies, in spite of their earlier rumblings of discontent, largely fell into line when the vote was called. Nevertheless, it remains a budget of unknowns. There are still far too many unanswered questions contained within – let’s just hope that when the answers come, they aren’t as disastrous as this year’s were for the buses, the public toilets, the car parks, the road network and Cornwall’s forgotten rural communities.

Budget Scrutiny – a wasted day full of jargon and spin 4 November, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in News.
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Today and yesterday were ‘Budget Scrutiny’ days at Cornwall Council. The idea is that Councillors have the chance to ask questions about the budget proposals of each directorate, and that part of the bargain was certainly fulfilled. Many Councillors, from all parties, asked many questions of the assembled officers and Cabinet Members from the Tory-led administration.

The trouble was, there didn’t seem to be any answers. Time and again Councillors asked for detail, usually receiving a bland reply about “operational integration” or “disinvestment” or “reablement-type activity” or – my personal favourite in the management jargon bingo game – “transformational change”. (What on Earth does that vacuous phrase mean? Changey change? Different differences? Please just make it stop…)

Mercifully I had a local meeting yesterday so I was spared most of Thursday’s pain (although I foolishly put the webcast on when I arrived home) but today felt like one of those days you know you’ll never get back, the sort of day when you find yourself wanting to make certain people eat the management manuals they’ve clearly spent too much time reading.

But of course, amid my frustration with the language, it would be wrong to lose sight of the real issue. Cornwall Council have made much of their decision to ‘go early’ with the budget this year, but as a result of that there is a serious “technical information deficit”, to put it into words the Cabinet might understand.┬áThe Budget Scrutiny days have simply been an exercise in window dressing. Representatives from various departments have given PowerPoint presentations (‘killing you Microsoftly’ as someone once said) and presented the administration’s spin, but the whole thing is desperately short on detail.

We know Cornwall will lose buses, toilets will close and potholes will remain unfixed, but what are the other hidden horrors? Last year the brave new budget process failed to see the gaping hole in car park revenue or the funding disaster which threatens to destroy Cornwall’s rural bus network. What will this year’s disaster be?

Who can say? I suspect there is no end of devilry in this budget – the trouble is, there’s so little detail.

(I wasn’t the only one to find the whole thing massively frustrating – have a read of the views of Alex Folkes, Jude Robinson and Andrew Wallis.)

Cornwall Council – “The Beeching of the Bus Routes” 19 August, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in Local Matters, News.
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The Environment & Economy Committee, chaired by Cllr Fred Greenslade, today held an ‘Inquiry Day’ into Cornwall Council’s proposed attack on concessionary bus fares. The bus operators attended, as did community operators, Councillors and members of the public and it’s fair to say that there is very little warmth for the Tory-led Council’s top-down approach to this issue.

There appears to have been little effort to consult people prior to announcing the cuts and no one at Cabinet level seems to have given any thought to the wider impact of a potential loss of rural bus routes. As the most vulnerable are the most likely to lose out, there is the chance of a significant impact on, for example, the Council’s Adult Social Care budget. There is also the effect on those in rural areas who use these routes to get to work.

Unfortunately the Cabinet Member with responsibility was not in attendance, but the administration at County Hall came in for some stinging criticism from all quarters. A representative from one of the bus operators witheringly pleaded with the Conservative-led Council not to become “the Beeching of the bus routes”. Time they started listening…