Thursday, 29 July 2010

Giving schools more freedom

When I was at Cornwall College in the late 80’s, I remember one project we were given was to weigh up the pros and cons of the "Net Book Agreement.” This was an arcane law that fixed the price for all books. Those who supported it said it was needed to protect book shops. Those who wanted to scrap it said the market should decide book prices. As one politician said at the time, “The only way to find out who is right is to scrap it and see what happens.” They did, and no one today can remember why we ever had it.

Which brings me to the lengthy debates we have been having on the Academies Bill this week. Opponents say school independence is a bad thing and the accountants at Cornwall Council wring their hands and worry about money by-passing their bank account and going direct to schools. But head teachers, governors and parents want more independence. They want the freedom to reward good teachers, change their syllabus, change term times and basically be captains of their own ship.

The only way to find out who is right is to try it and see. The key thing about this reform is that is up to schools to decide. No school is being forced to become an independent academy. Some will decide to stay under the wing of Cornwall Council and that is their choice. But those who do want to take control of their own school only have to ask.

I think it’s a great idea. We need our schools to have the freedom and independence that previously only private schools were allowed to have. I have met some fantastic head teachers in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle but they sometimes have to work with one hand tied behind their back. At the moment, head teachers work for the council but under these reforms, the council will work for head teachers. If a school judges that the support services being provided are falling short, then they will be able to fire the council and employ someone else.

The changes which passed into law this week give schools much more independence. Schools will control their own budget and decide their own curriculum and their own school ethos. It also makes it easier for head teachers to reward good teachers by setting pay and conditions. I think this is really important because too often good talent leaves the teaching profession early because the current system is too rigid.

The Prime Minister has often been attacked for the fact that he went to a particularly well known private school. But what some people fail to realise is that few issues motivate him more than education and the new government wants to give all parents the sort of choice that today only money can buy. In ten years time, we might well look back and wonder why on earth it wasn’t done sooner.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

European funding

Last week there was a flurry of speculation about the future of regeneration schemes after the RDA suggested that all projects under the European Regional Development Fund had been stopped. Cornwall’s MPs found themselves hard at work making the case for important plans like “Next Generation Broadband.”

Regional development programmes have played an important role in the regeneration of Cornwall. Objective One helped kick start some really worthwhile projects such as the Combined Universities for Cornwall and there are good plans being put forward under the new “Convergence” programme too.

But the new coalition government has its work cut out getting to grips with the financial crisis. Although George Osborne made clear in his emergency budget that he would make no further cuts to capital spending, the last Labour government had already put in train a 50 percent cut in capital spending and those cuts now have to be reconciled against specific projects.

As the government identifies which projects to cut and which to keep, I think it must apply some clear criteria to ensure we get things right.

Firstly, where no government match funding is required, projects should be approved immediately. That is why the swift decision to make clear that projects like “Next Generation Broadband” will go ahead unhindered was so important.

Secondly, one of the key criteria applied should be the extent of match funding on offer. In Cornwall, because of the support we are entitled to from EU funding streams, each pound that national government spends usually levers in three pounds of additional investment. That puts us in a strong position relevant to other projects elsewhere in the country.

This case would be made stronger still if EU rules on the amount of match funding needed could be modernised. At the moment, the EU sets rigid rules stipulating that projects must have “match funding” from other sources – usually national government. It leads to the ridiculous situation where the inability of a national government to find the cash demanded means that its poorest regions lose everything –not just the money from national government but also the EU money which makes no sense at all. EU officials need to be ordered to prioritise spending in areas most in need and on projects that add most value and not to get bogged down by petty rules setting arbitrary requirements for match funding.

Finally, when it comes to prioritising capital spending, the most important factor considered should be the impact on jobs and enterprise. There is only one way out of this recession and that is through creating new businesses and new industries. The government needs to separate out the "nice to have" projects which could wait from the essential projects that unlock economic potential. If all these criteria were applied, then many of the projects currently being reviewed in Cornwall will come out well from the current spending review and this puts us in a strong position.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Bringing new life to our towns

Earlier today I opened a new shop in Redruth for Rodda and Hocking, the conservatory specialists who also have a shop in Cross Street, Camborne. They have done a fantastic job fitting out the shop and this is exactly the sort of organic change we need to see in our town centres.

I have always thought we need to focus on measures that will bring new life to our towns and, earlier this year I organised a mini conference on the subject. It sought to answer the question, "How do we bring new prosperity to our towns?"

I am conscious that all too often such events are attended by councillors and advisers, Business Links and other employed experts, but not by the hard pressed business people who have to man the shop because they can't afford the staff cover that would allow them to attend.

So to make sure their views were represented, I spent two days walking through Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, going in to shops and talking to as many entrepreneurs as possible. It was an eye opener.

The first thing I found is that "regeneration" was seen as a dirty word by some. There is a reason for this which we need to recognise. Too often in the past, town centre regeneration has been associated with "townscape" issues: one way systems, pedestrianisation, new pavements, resurfacing car parks. In practice, work like that can be incredibly disruptive in the short term for businesses trying to build a customer base and we all know it’s a lot easier to lose customers than to gain them.

So as we discuss ways to increase the number of people visiting our towns we should apply a clear principle of "first, do no harm." Any disruptive work must be done in the fastest possible time and we must really test to destruction the value we expect to get from changes to urban layout.

My own view is that having one or two destination retailers that make towns a place people will make the effort to visit and thereby lift the tide for all traders is the single most important objective we should have. It is why I think the prospect of a JD Wetherspoon pub in Camborne creates a lot of new potential.

There were two other issues that came up in my meetings with retailers. The first was business rates. I came across a number of good businesses who took a real pride in what they did and their work added to the overall offering of the town but they were struggling to make ends meet. I think this is particularly sad in the case of new businesses starting out because there is a danger that morale can fall quickly. So I am keen to explore ways of cushioning such businesses against business rates in the early years.

Secondly, we cannot ignore the importance of parking. There is a reason why many major players moved out of town. They have the space to offer free car parking. The reality is that people want to be able to park their car, fill it with stuff and drive home. We should not side step this issue. I have seen some argue that free car parking has not helped towns where it has been piloted. It won't on its own but I do believe it could have an important role to play alongside other measures and we should look at how this might be made possible.