Thursday, 25 October 2012

Time to reform the structure of Cornwall Council

It has been an eventful and, let’s face it, rather chaotic ten days at County Hall with the loss of Alec Robertson as Council Leader followed by a series of bizarre events which resulted in every political grouping voting for a leader from someone else's party.

Alec Robertson deserves credit for the hard work he has put in over the last three an years. It is easy to criticise, but leading a divided council without a majority is a thankless task and there have been achievements. Under the last Lib Dem regime, Cornwall Council was one of the worst performing councils in the country, in the bottom four percent, adult social care and social services were in special measures and borrowing was out of control. Now it is one of the most improved councils in the country, adult care and social services are improving rapidly and the finances are back on track with council tax frozen.

The jury is still out on the new council which has its work cut out to establish authority. After the divisive events of last week, there was a very strong case for a “unity” administration where all parties worked together over the next six months for the good of Cornwall. Extraordinarily, the Lib Dems rejected an offer to work with the new council leader they themselves elected which shows a real lack of maturity on their part.

Once the dust settles, it will be important to learn lessons and sort out the institutional weaknesses inherent in the way this unitary authority was set up. Firstly, the notion that, after a vote of no confidence, councillors must elect a new leader immediately is clearly bonkers and the procedural rules need to be overhauled to enable an interim leader to act as caretaker for a couple of weeks to allow time for a considered transition to someone new.

Secondly, the council is too large and finds it difficult to reach clear decisions, so we should consider cutting the number of councillors. At the same time, we need to strengthen local accountability by passing more control to parish and town councils.

Finally, we need to review the way the council is structured. The advantage of the current "cabinet" system is that it is easier to make decisions but too many councillors feel excluded. The alternative is a "committee system" where more councillors are involved but it is harder to make decisions. A third option would be to replace the office of the Chief Executive with a directly elected Mayor for Cornwall with a political staff to manage the council day to day. However, my own favoured model is that pioneered by Kent County Council who have adopted a cross between a cabinet and a committee system which gives them the best of both worlds.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Police and Crime Commissioner Elections

This week nominations closed for candidates putting themselves forward for the election to decide who will become the first Police and Crime Commissioner for the Devon and Cornwall Police Force, and in just four weeks time, local people will have the opportunity to vote for the candidate they think is best placed to cut crime.

The powerful new, elected role will replace the largely invisible Police Authorities that went before. The old Police Authority was drawn from local councils but members of it were never in a position to genuinely hold the Chief Constable to account and hardly anyone could name the chairman of the Police Authority. That is about to change.

There are no less than ten candidates standing for the role in Devon and Cornwall which shows that, whatever the critics might say, enthusiasm for the idea is starting to pick up as election day nears. I have always argued that this is a brand new role and will be an election unlike normal general elections so we need a different sort of candidate to do the job well. I was involved a year ago in trying to encourage talented people with experience outside conventional politics to throw their hat in the ring and stand as the Conservative candidate and we found just the man for the job.

Tony Hogg was the Commanding Officer at RNAS Culdrose and has experience of managing a large budget of over £80 million and leading a military base with 3000 personnel. He saw active service in the Falklands conflict where he was a helicopter pilot and he captained a group of minesweeper ships during the first gulf war. In 1978, he was decorated for his role in an audacious rescue operation of a stricken trawler off the Cornish coast. Although he lives in Cornwall, he spent some of career based in Devonport and he trained at Dartmouth, so he understands Devon too. After leaving the Navy, he went on to become the Chief Executive of BF Adventure which provides outward bound courses to drill discipline and confidence into young teenagers who have had a hard start in life and who are at risk of being excluded from school.

Because he worked in the Navy at the most senior level, he understands the forces and knows how to lift morale within the team. I think this is incredibly important because the police force is going through many changes at present and we need clear leadership to boost morale. But his experience in the charity sector means that he also understands that to cut crime, we need early intervention to turn around the lives of young people. It is a winning combination which makes him ideal for the post.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A lot done, a lot more to do II

I spent a couple of days this week at the Conservative conference in Birmingham. The government has been through a difficult period over the last six months with a string of things going wrong but conference is a good opportunity to draw a line under the past and get things back on track.

All governments suffer from the fact that bad news floats to the top while good news tends to sink without trace and it is easy to forget some of the things that have been achieved. This government has started to get the country’s finances back under control and the deficit has been cut by a quarter. The credibility that Britain has internationally means that mortgage rates are at record lows. Millions of people working hard on the lowest incomes have been taken out of tax altogether. There has been an overhaul of the benefits system so that work pays with intensive support introduced to help those who have lost their confidence get back in to a job.

Although there have been losses in public sector jobs, there have been almost a million jobs created by private enterprises in the last couple of years and unemployment has been falling over the last six months or so. There has also been a shake-up of government spending in Whitehall with around £8 billion slashed from budgets on wasteful things like management consultants and expensive advertising agencies. Finally, there is additional funding to help schools in some of the poorer areas give children the best possible start in life and schools have been given new freedoms and independence to allow head teachers to become captains of their own ship.

So, a lot has been achieved but there is undoubtedly more to do and the government has also made some mistakes. Any new policy will have unintended consequences and create unforeseen problems so one of the most important things that government must do is to refine and adjust its policies once they start to bed down. For instance, while the principle behind simplifying the benefits system is right, we need to monitor the detail carefully. I still see far too many examples where medical assessments have not been carried out correctly and where the wrong judgement has been reached. And I am concerned at proposals to prevent Housing Benefit being paid directly to landlords because, while well intentioned, it will only lead to rent arrears and ultimately mean that some people lose their home. So called, “u-turns” tend to be perceived as a sign of weakness in politics but no government should be too proud or too stubborn to admit when things don’t work as planned and therefore need to change.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Chance to take stock...

As the political parties convene for their annual conferences, it is a good opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved as we reach the halfway stage of this parliament.

At the last election, I made economic regeneration my number one priority in the local area and in the last two years have made ensuring that our towns get the crucial investment they need my main focus. In Hayle I always argued that, if we were going to have another supermarket, we should put it right in the centre so that it brings life into the town rather than on the outskirts draining life away. Following the success in securing a government grant, work is already well underway on North Quay and we should now see work starting on South Quay next spring.

In Camborne I have always said that we should develop brownfield sites before greenfield sites and we need to attract new industries to create the jobs of the future. The new development at the former Holman site on Trevu road is a good example of what can be achieved when people put their minds to it with regeneration that restores and safeguards our heritage while creating new homes. The £25 million new road scheme between Camborne and Pool will unlock the economic potential of the derelict mining land at Tuckingmill creating new jobs and business opportunities and I am hopeful that we will now also see South Crofty mine reopened.

Finally, I have always said that Redruth is at the heart of Cornish heritage. A quarter of all the six million people around the world with Cornish ancestry can trace their roots back to Redruth. So I am delighted that the council has now made the decision to locate the new Cornwall Archive project on the old brewery site. This project will reinvigorate the town centre, become a catalyst of regeneration elsewhere and it is estimated it will bring an extra £1.4million of revenue to Redruth each year once established.

So, in the next two years, significant work should be underway in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle which will create jobs locally and I hope will start to transform the fortunes of this part of Cornwall but we must not be complacent and should use this fresh momentum to try to drive forward other changes. In Redruth, we should press for something to be done to other difficult sites such as the old Avers Garage site at the gateway to the town. In Camborne, we need to work to get one or two larger retailers to show interest in the town to make it more of a shopping destination and in Hayle, plans are already afoot to develop a new project around East Quay to develop and support the fishing industry there.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.