Friday, 28 September 2012

Slow Down and Consider the Alternatives.

Cllr Jim Currie’s letter to other Cornwall Council members has let the cat out of the bag. The privatisation of council services to one of two corporations he describes as a “smash and grab raid” and a “bonanza” for either BT or the American CSC at the expense of the Cornish taxpayer.

Jim’s particular objection is the last minute inclusion of council procurement in the deal – a decision made by the Chief Executive Kevin Lavery and Council Leader Alec Robertson, while Cllr Currie was on vacation. To quote Cllr Currie:
 “The incorporation of procurement into the Joint Venture has increased its financial scope from £22m a year for Shared Services to include the huge procurement budget recognised by the service officially as influence over £436m annually. The latter is a step change of potentially 20 times the original scope and exceeding the projected limits. Giving £4.3 billion of spending power away to a proxy over 10 years is a dangerous business.”

Cllr Currie goes on to say:
 “The promise of jobs in six to seven years’ time indeed may well happen. Unfortunately, information freely available to all members would indicate a distinct possibility that each job could cost the Cornish taxpayer one million pounds.” 

A million pounds a job is around five times Mr Lavery's salary.

In my experience Cllr Currie has been entirely consistent. As Deputy Leader whose responsibilities include Corporate Resources (finance) he has often been voice of prudence, reminding members of the sometimes dire state of Council finance brought about by the 29% cut from central government. It has been far from an easy job at times. He was very brave not to vote with the rest of the Cabinet when Cornwall Council voted not to proceed with this deal two weeks ago. I would add that Cllr Currie is also, quite possibly the hardest working member of the Council. He attends more meetings than any other member – usually just to listen.

As the man in charge of finance Cllr Currie has been more closely involved than any other elected member in the two year process of what is euphemistically described as a “Strategic Partnership.” As a cabinet member he is privy to the fine print of the secret deal which is withheld from other members on the dubious grounds of “commercial confidentiality.” To my knowledge no other member has even seen a business plan – including myself as a member of Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee and of the Shared Services Single Issue Panel for over nine months.

Like the majority of elected Councillors I do not believe that, as it stands, this deal can possibly be the interests of the Cornish taxpayer. Cllr Andrew Wallis’s public petition nears 5000 signatories, Cllr Robertson is facing a vote of no confidence on October 16th and now the Deputy Leader has exposed the enormous financial risks involved. 

It is time to slow down and consider the alternatives.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Strategic Partnership.....if it walks like a duck

Today was a great day for democracy in Cornwall.

Cornwall Council voted by 46 to 29 not to privatise what is called “shared services” by entering into potentially a multi-billion pound 10 year deal with one of two corporations (and possibly 3 health partners) in what is euphemistically called a “Joint Venture” or “Strategic Partnership.” To be clear - if either of the bidders are successful they will set up a private company. They will hold 51% of shares and a 3 to 2 majority on the board of directors. The deal would involve the transfer of around 1000 staff initially to this company, which would then be contracted to provide services privately. It is an old adage but, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

Councillors voted 46 to 29 to support a proposal by Andrew Wallis and seconded by Andrew Long, which stated that:

“In view of its far reaching consequences, including its potential impact on Council governance and elected member accountability, this Council believes that it is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall for the Council to enter into the proposed strategic partnership for support services and procurement.”

I would point out that the press release from Cornwall Council is misleading. Councillors did not vote to “delay” a decision as the motion makes clear and the majority was not 15 but 17.

Councillors did this despite a carefully orchestrated 25 minute presentation by the Chief Executive, Kevin Lavery and his directors. Mr Lavery, whose background is in private sector commissioning, tried his best to scare Council members into believing that the government were going to cut possibly a further £120m from its’ delegated grant. He repeated his belief that to “do nothing” is not an option. The truth is there is no settlement – no decision has yet been made to cut local government finance again. None.
Councillors were then asked to believe that this new private sector “partner” would make “savings” of 20% in the first two years, create 500 new jobs in Cornwall and return a profit for their shareholders. Councillors were simply not convinced and several members were at pains to point out that many similar deals in other local authorities had ended up with rising costs, worse services and job losses. South West 1 in Somerset, Liverpool City Council and Suffolk County Council were cited by myself as examples of how easily this type of venture can fail.

Special mention must go to Councillor Jim Currie, the Deputy Leader and portfolio holder for Corporate Resources, who abstained from the vote. He was at pains to point out that when the Council asked for expressions of interest from the private sector the invitation did not involve Council procurement. This had been added later with potential for immense profits to be made by a private company at the expense of the taxpayer. It was significant that the cabinet member who has taken most interest in the deal, who has regularly attended relevant committee meetings and enjoys a deserved reputation for being cautious, did not support his leader or cabinet colleagues.

So what happens now? The leader can simply ignore the views of the Council and press ahead, or he could do the right thing and slow down or stop the process. There are elections in May next year. If he really believes that this is right for the people of Cornwall, let them decide. In the interim he could ask his directors to explore a Cornish Solution by setting up a wholly owned genuine partnership with the existing health partners and other public sector organisations. This could be a mutual model in the style of John Lewis with employee ownership and would, I believe, be the best way of making savings and guaranteeing decent jobs in Cornwall.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Stadium for Cornwall or a Stadium in Cornwall?

I have previously pointed out some of the difficulties of a stadium plan which relies too heavily on The Pirates as principal tenant here. I was left disappointed that the debate at CC on Tuesday which was limited by a poor resolution and ultimately sent the message to all the people of Cornwall and beyond that their principal elected body does not support the case for a stadium. The Pirates, who were in the gallery, made no attempt to hide their ire – “Grow a pair” was one tweet.

I do not know if a stadium is a viable long-term proposition but I remain firmly convinced that Cornwall Council owes it to the Cornish people to undertake some serious work to find out. What I do believe is that any stadium must be genuinely multi-use. It must be available as a sporting centre of excellence to which all Cornish youngsters could aspire to perform. The Cornish Pirates would be a key tenant, but not the only one. A detailed agreement covering terms of use would be essential.

So here is a bit of food for thought:

  1. Design a stadium which a doubles as a music venue. With a non-tiered end for a stage and a semi-synthetic pitch it may hold 12000 people or more for a major concert. In the summer time I believe a series of concerts would be a major tourist draw. Maybe we could have a sort of mini Cornish Glastonbury Festival as part of a celebration of Cornish arts and culture?
  2. Explore the option of funding some of the construction costs from the major Support Services contract currently being tendered for as part of a JV. At one similar project some members visited in Sandwell, the major corporate contractor gave £43m up front as part of the deal. It funded a whole new ICT infrastructure and they purpose built a new centre for the staff. They would inevitably pay to have their name and their offices attached to the stadium. The “BT/CSC Kevin Lavery Stadium For Cornwall” slips off the tongue.
  3. Provide an opportunity for Pirates fans (and others) to buy shares in the stadium and hence their team. I believe that one of the best long-term guarantees of the clubs success is if it is partly or wholly owned by the fans. It seems to work for Barcelona FC and The Green Bay Packers
  4. Sell the Mennaye Field. I am sure a supermarket would find a few million spare to buy it.
  5. Talk to the RFU (and other sporting bodies) about capital investment. They lend smaller amounts to rugby clubs at 0% interest.
  6.  Finally, talk to the government. Maybe Mr Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have woken up to the abject failure of the austerity plan (the deficit has gone up) and are realising, like most of the rest of Europe, that you need to borrow to invest in major capital projects at the bottom of a recession if it is not to become a depression. There is just the chance they would support such a plan in one of the country’s poorest areas to create jobs and grow the economy. If they don’t, show them we can do it anyway.

A stadium in Cornwall has the potential to be an enormous white elephant like the one built in 2003 for Darlington FC at a cost of £18m. It now sits empty as a grotesque rusting testimony to grand plans and poor decision making. (I was tempted to mention Newquay airport here but resisted.) A stadium for Cornwall on the other hand could bring jobs, trade and investment to the Cornish economy. It could become the focus of Cornwall’s proud sporting and cultural heritage for future generations. It could even become a significant icon for Cornwall itself. Oh and it could provide a home for the Cornish Pirates.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Cornwall's First Free School, Camborne

There can be no doubt that the Coalition government have departed on the most radical overhaul of the public education system since the 1944 Act. For many the jury is probably still out on Academy conversion. Cornwall is leading the charge to escape the clutches of local authority "control" with 41 schools (about a third of all pupils) opting in to a funding agreement with the DfE in return for greater curriculum freedoms, an end to national pay scales, the ability to vary the length of the school day - oh and a hefty Redknapp style "bung" which can amount to near £750 000 in a large secondary school.

To pay for his experiment Mr Gove raided, no decimated, the money allocated to LA's and schools in their capital budget. First the Building Schools for the Future project was scrapped, ending six major rebuild programmes in Cornwall alone. Then school and local authority capital budgets were cut by 60% in some cases. Cornwall Councils budget has fallen from £35m last year to £10m next. Only £1.9m is allocated for "basic need" capital which funds repairs. The backlog in schools for repair work is, from memory, around £48m.

This week we discover that the DfE has given the go ahead for St Michaels Catholic Independent School in Truro to reopen in Camborne in September as a "Free School."

The DfE has reputedly provided £700 000 of taxpayers money to buy the Children's Centre on Trevu Rd, Camborne. The building was formerly a Grammar School. The new school of around 50 pupils will now be funded by the taxpayer so the parents will presumably no longer have to pay fees. There is absolutely no requirement for a new school in the area. In fact the neighbouring secondary schools have over 200 spare places while in other parts of the county there are rising numbers and no money to fund the additional school places needed.

In addition to the glaring inequity the new "Free School" has no requirement to employ qualified teachers or even have a playground. Mr Gove may wish to dress this policy up in the language of "diversity and choice" but in reality it as an ideologically driven absurd waste of taxpayers money.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Removing Bad Apples

Underperforming teachers can be removed within a term under powers being introduced in September. 

Underperforming Education Secretary Michael Gove said recently in an interview with The Daily Mail said that he wanted parents to ask to go into classrooms to assess how well children were being taught. Gove said: "You wouldn't tolerate an underperforming surgeon in an operating theatre." 

It seems that he is suggesting that the general public now go into operating theatres and give their advice on what to remove?

At the risk of stating the obvious, this really is Mr Gove pandering to the Daily Mail and its much maligned readers. Effectively Gove seems to be advocating a scheme of one strike and you are out of the profession. If you accept it is possible for inept heads to lie to actively seek to undermine staff members, then the effect of these plans on good teachers with bad heads could be disastrous. Don't get me wrong - there are bad teachers out there, just as there are bad doctors, police and politicians. The difference is that there is no tabloid agenda for the latter. A great deal of care needs to be put into ensuring this doesn't become a power tool for under-performing heads.

Personally I have seen many poorly performing teachers removed from the profession. However, in the vast majority of cases it occurs quietly and diplomatically, and with a certain amount of humanity, not in a fanfare of publicity, announcements in the papers and at Tory Party conferences. Perhaps that's the difference between the professional Headteachers and Mr Gove
If MPs want to live in a world where mistakes are not tolerated I suggest they start by removing the salaries and pensions of all of those caught out by the expenses scandal - that includes Mr Gove.

Friday, 6 January 2012

The Cornish EMA....I mean Bursary

Council members had their first opportunity today to scrutinise the new bursary scheme being offered to Cornish 16-19 year olds who study at level 3 (that's A level in old money.) This is despite it already been approved by the Council Cabinet and by full council.

Since I was elected to Cornwall Council in June 2009 this is the first time I can remember being on a committee which spent two hours discussing spending new money rather that spending cuts. Most welcome.

In a nutshell £700k of unspent European Convergence money will be spent for two years to support young people in their studies. It will be distributed across Cornwall's Further Education providers but they will decide how it is distributed. There was much discussion of how this would happen. You can read all the details in Alex Folkes blog here and Andrew Wallis's blog here. For my part I would like to give it some perspective.

The Educational Maintenance Allowance was introduced by the previous government. It was a national, means tested scheme which paid up to £30 a week to help young people to continue to study beyond 16. They were able to buy bus tickets, books, meals and class A drugs (if you believe the Daily Mail.)

The scheme was attendance related and saw staying rates improve by 6% or so. It was claimed by around 600 000 from poorer families and has been retained in Scotland. The total cost to the taxpayer was around £560m a year and the IFS described it as "cost effective." When announcing that it was to be scrapped, the current Chancellor George Osborne described it as having, "very high dead weight costs." This is the same George Osborne who last year allowed RBS (83% publicly owned) bankers to award themselves bonuses totalling £500m. 2400 bankers averaged bonuses of £210 000 at Christmas.

All that said the Cornish Bursary scheme may be small potatoes (Cornish students lost £5.6m when it was scrapped) but it is very welcome - warts and all. Credit must go to Neil Burdon, Trevor Doughty, Dave Wood and all involved in getting it through.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

A Stadium for Cornwall? .........Yes please, but I am happy to wait.

Rugby is one of my great passions in life. I played for over thirty years, coached for fourteen and have been secretary of my local club for going on five years now. I am a Pirates fan. I have supported them for several seasons at Kenwyn, Camborne and The Mennaye and I even subscribed to Pirates TV. I would love to see the likes of Bath, Saracens and Leicester playing in Cornwall. That is why I signed the petition calling for Cornwall Council to help build a stadium. A stadium which I believed could bring Premiership rugby and league football to Cornwall and a stadium which could provide a focal point for Cornwall’s sporting heritage. Now outline planning for the stadium has been granted, Truro City FC's involvement looks unlikely and how it will be funded is at best unclear, I have my doubts.

Firstly, I cannot see Pirates gaining promotion to the top flight, at least not on current form. They haven't succeeded in in doing this yet, although they gave Worcester a scare last season. Even if they did win the playoff final this year they could not go up because they don’t have a suitable stadium. At very best it would not be until the 2013/14 season assuming they could overcome Newcastle, who look likely relegation candidates. In addition I can see a time in the near future when automatic promotion to and relegation from the Premiership will end. Several of the senior Premiership clubs have long sought to protect their investments and eye with envy the Super 15’s, the Rabodirect Pro12 and rugby leagues Super League, none of which have the threat of relegation hanging over the elite clubs. Instead they operate a franchise arrangement with strict entrance criteria.

Secondly, there has to be serious consideration given to the long term sustainability of any rugby club playing below the Premiership – and it is hard enough in that league. Since the inception of the Championship and the level below (National 1,) there have been 41 teams competing in those two leagues. No less than 25 of those have been insolvent or bankrupt, including Cornwall’s own Mounts Bay and Cornish All Blacks. The RFU has to give serious consideration to the sustainability of professional rugby at the level below the Premiership. This is particularly true during an extended period of austerity for most people – and that includes rugby fans.

The example often cited by supporters of a Stadium for Cornwall is the success of Exeter Chiefs who gained promotion two seasons ago and who have exceeded most people’s expectations both on and off the field. The key differences are that Exeter, at around 120 000, has five times the population of Truro, rail links, an airport and, significantly, the Sandy Park ground sits on the M5 corridor within an hour or so of Bath, Gloucester, Worcester, Bristol and several senior Welsh clubs.  In their first season in the top flight the Chiefs achieved gates of over 9000 but that has fallen to nearer 6000 this season. I wonder about the Pirates potential to attract crowds of that size bearing in mind their average crowd this season is around 2200. Moving nearer to the centre of the county in Truro will certainly help, but if the ticket prices are in the £31-£35 price range the Chiefs charge, I remain to be convinced.

Let us assume for one moment that I am completely wrong. The Pirates get promoted, they attract large crowds and the much lauded economic benefits to the County (blogged about here by Alex Folkes) are realistic. Would I then support a stadium? If the stadium is to be paid for by private sector investment, then absolutely. It is worth the risk.

If, on the other hand, the stadium is to be paid for, even in part, from public money I would find it difficult to support it for one simple reason. We are facing a housing crisis in Cornwall. There are currently a record 21000+ people on the waiting list. Outside of London, Cornwall is amongst the worst places in the country to buy a house because of the disparity between incomes and prices. The number of second homes continues to go up and the number of empty homes is a scandal. Many of those on the list are young people on low incomes who are in desperate need of decent living accommodation. 

If, as many suspect, Cornwall Council is proposing to use section 106 planning gain money from the 1500 or more houses to be built nearby to help fund a “Community” stadium (a legal requirement,) then I cannot, in my heart of hearts vote in favour. That money should be used to help provide affordable housing in Truro and beyond.

I will continue to support the Pirates but I am happy to wait a bit longer for a new stadium.