Western Morning News – March 8, 2012
Devon and Cornwall’s first elected police commissioner will be paid a full-time £85,000 salary even if they work part-time, the Government has announced.
Ministers yesterday provoked outrage after saying salaries for new police and crime commissioners will not be reduced if they continue to hold other paid roles as well.
Home Secretary Theresa May said commissioners should be clear about any outside interests, and let the electorate decide their fate.
It is the first time the Government has admitted would-be commissioners, who will replace police authorities, will be permitted to hold other jobs.
MPs are paid a full-time salary but are allowed to work in other professions, such as the law, so long as it is declared.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said: “I know a lot of Tory MPs claim they can’t live on an MP’s salary of £68,000 so take on extra jobs.
“But to suggest a police commissioner couldn’t survive in the Westcountry on £85,000 is absolutely ridiculous.
“It’s also grossly insulting to the police and the public to suggest that the job of police commissioner should not be full-time.
“Leading the fight against crime against a backdrop of massive cuts to the police is going to be more than a full-time job.”
The move follows speculation that high-profile candidates would be put off entering the races if they had to give up lucrative positions elsewhere.
Stand-alone elections for 41 police and crime commissioners, including one for Devon and Cornwall, will take place in November.
In the Westcountry, Tory Cornwall councillor Lance Kennedy has thrown his hat into the ring, and Devon councillor Brian Greenslade, a Liberal Democrat, is considering running for the post.
The Senior Salary Review Body last year recommended the new figureheads are paid up to £100,000.
The Home Secretary yesterday accepted that, meaning Devon and Cornwall and Avon and Somerset’s commissioners will be paid £85,000 each, and Dorset’s £70,000.
One proposal rejected by Mrs May was that the salaries should be reduced on a pro-rata basis for any who “do not carry out the role on a full-time basis”.
“We understand the intention behind it, but we believe that the best way forward is for commissioners to be clear with their electorate about what outside interests they have and for the electorate to judge them accordingly,” she said in a written statement.
“I intend to ensure that a commissioner declares any paid and/or unpaid interests that may conflict with their role or affect the amount of time which they will be devoting to it.”
Commissioners will set force budgets. Operational policing will remain with chief constables.
Never let it be said the Western Morning News shirks from the big questions.
David Miliband kindly briefed members of the regional Lobby this morning on a report by the Commission on Youth Unemployment, which he chairs.
The report characterises youth unemployment as an “emergency”, and calls for a part-time job guarantee for those on the welfare-to-work programme for a year and a new national programme to work with teenagers.
Doubtless bored of being probed about his brother and future Labour leadership ambitions, the commission’s findings prompted another question: what did he think about “Oasis guitarist” Noel Gallagher’s remarks on there being a stronger work ethic under Thatcher (although it was in spite of, not because of Maggie T, he was at pains to point out later).
At first, the question got what it deserved.
“Did you just say Oasis guitarist because you thought I was so old I wouldn’t know who it was? Very diplomatic of you.”
Anyway, it was clear the former Foreign Secretary wasn’t quite up to speed with the latest musings from the former (mea culpa) Oasis guitarist in the Mail on Sunday.
“We were brought up under Margaret Thatcher. There was a work ethic — if you were unemployed, the obsession was to find work. Now these kids brought up under the Labour Party and whatever this Coalition thing is, say, ‘Forget that, I’m not interested. I wanna be on TV’.”
But what about the broader point? Mr Miliband said.
“The Co-op has advertised 800 apprenticeships and they had 64,000 applicants. That’s one example. There’s a hell of a lot of youngsters out there with get-up-and-go. Many of them would have been rebuffed in previous applications for apprenticeships, and they are desperate for the opportunity to show what they are capable of. I think we’ve got a much bigger problem of youngsters with aspirations but no opportunities to match them then we do youngsters with opportunities but no aspiration. Can you find a youngster who is de-motivated and thinks they’re owed a living? Of course you can find someone. But that’s not the point.”
He doesn’t seem to quite agree with Noel’s analysis, then
Not for the first time has David Cameron’s attention been diverted when visiting the Westcountry.
The Prime Minister was in Plymouth, home of Western Europe’s biggest naval base, Afghanistan heroes and a substantial commercial dockyard. Defence of the realm, valour and jobs. The Holy Trinity for a Conservative Prime Minister.
But Devonport dockyard was 250 miles from the political centre of gravity at 10am yesterday, when all eyes were on the Crown Prosecution Service’s headquarters in London. It’s not every day Mr Cameron will get a “Dear Prime Minister” letter – signifying a ministerial resignation – from one of his Cabinet. Yesterday’s missive, dashed off by Energy Secretary Chris Huhne amid allegations of perverting the course of justice, was his third.
Cucumber cool, the Prime Minister barely batted an eyelid. “I think Chris Huhne has made the right decision, given the circumstances,” Mr Cameron insisted.
Job done. Back to the glad-handing. But Mr Cameron must be used to things not going entirely to plan when Devon and Cornwall enter his diary. Last summer, a family holiday to North Cornwall was interrupted as euphoric Libyan rebels swept into Tripoli. That’s what happens when you chair the National Security Council. A day later, though, he was back buying locally caught scallops from a Port Isaac fishmonger.
A year earlier, the diversion was more domestic: the early arrival of the Camerons’ fourth child, Florence Rose Endellion, the girl with the Cornish middle name.
Harold Macmillan’s possibly apocryphal saying – “events, my dear boy. Events” – seems to resonate when Mr Cameron visits the far South West.
It’s a bit of mystery when a cash-strapped council refuses money.
As my colleague Louise Vennells reported this week, two Devon councils – South Hams and West Devon – are poised to reject £250,000 between them.
It was money to pay for a council tax freeze from April, the equivalent of a 2.5 per cent council tax hike. Some £129,100 for South Hams, £100,200 for West Devon. Both are Conservative run.
Why? After all, it is a central plank of the Government promise to do all they can to protect households from the chill winds of austerity.
“Council tax frozen for two years running,” Chancellor George Osborne beamed at the Tory autumn conference. Just this week Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles heaped praise on 150 authorities who have agreed the freeze.
At the heart of the problem is that the offer is only on the table for one year. By contrast, councils got money for a tax freeze for five years if they opted not to put the levy up in 2011/12.
By accepting the one year-only hand-out they effectively store up problems for the following year. From somewhere the council has to find cash if it wants to fund the same level of service, or the “baseline”. A tax hike? A frontline cut or two?
Add to that the normal inflationary pressures and in 2013/14 councils face a nasty headache.
Officials at Cornwall Council, which will get £6 million for holding down the tax, put the quandry like this: “If the grant is accepted by the authority and council tax frozen, the council will have sufficient funding in 2012/13, but in 2013/14 there will be a funding shortfall of circa £6 million and therefore the council will have to implement service cuts to an equivalent sum or to raise council tax by 5 per cent.”
This is the bullet the two district councils have attempted to avoid, which is perhaps a lot simpler to do if you are a small rural authority.
Next year is made all the more fascinating, for policy nerds at least, by local referendums. They can be triggered if authorities raise taxes by 3.5 per cent, a prospect most in their right mind would look to avoid.
The way out? Well, next autumn the Chancellor could announce another one-year freeze, bagging a further set of positive headlines and putting something in a Tory councillor’s back pocket at local elections. Cornwall goes to the polls in 2013, for example.
Although one Westcountry council source isn’t banking on that, noting Margaret Thatcher had little love for provinces.
Not quite Holmes versus Moriarty, but the game is afoot.
Few regions would have expected to be handed £35m a year by George Osborne in last year’s autumn statement. But that’s how much the Chancellor lavished on Devon and Cornwall (and bits of Dorset and Somerset) by way of a £50 per household rebate to all South West Water customers.
It was a tacit apology for botched water industry privatistaion in the 1980s. Three per cent of the population paying for the clean-up of around one-third of the country’s coastline has left the region – a pretty poor one – with the highest bills in the UK.
Today, South West Water announced average annual bills would go up £26 to £543 from April. That was on top of the £30 rise last year, which took the charge for water and sewage to £517: the first time any UK water utility charged above £500.
So the first £50 hand-out wiped out within two years.
The £35m, ministers have said, will last each year until the end of the next spending period, which is towards the end of the decade. This is yet to be written on the face of a government Bill, however.
If bills go up at the rate they are, South West Water’s levy should fall below £500 again by 2014. And by 2019/20, bills should be less than £400.
Charges then would be closer to the rest of the pack. Severn Trent customers will pay £325 next year, the lowest in the country.
But what happens when the Treasury turns off the taps?
Some have suggested the £50 tackles the symptom, not the cause. That charges in the Westcountry will spiral again from 2019 onwards. It will be another Government’s problem by then.
Britain may have lost the upper-hand in almost every sphere, but when it comes to moaning about trains we remain world-class. And the Westcountry does rail belligerence better than most.
First Great Western, which does inter-city in the South West, was dubbed “Worst Great Western” in 2008 after then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly threatened to strip the firm of its rail franchise amid claims it services had been “unacceptable for far too long”. It still receives a regular shoeing. The briefest internet trawl will find less than flattering notices over eye-watering fares, over-crowding and questionable hot food.
Personally, I’ve never found FGW too bad, and by most independent measures things have got a lot better since the 2008 nadir. Well, at least they’re not being balled out in the Commons anymore.
Yet the region could be about to get a new rail whipping boy. FGW opted to leave the franchise three years early, saving it around £820 million in re-payments to the state, by exercising a break-clause in its contract. Labour have questioned the “public spirit” of the move, not least as the firm intends to bid for the next franchise, starting in May 2013.
As it stands, First is the only train operating company – a TOC, to use the jargon – to throw its hat in to the ring. But surely more will step forward. Ministers admit they have been surprised with the boom in rail travel in recent years, and £5billion is being pumped into the Great Western line alone. A lucrative deal is there to be struck, not least if they can strip out the loss-making rural routes in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset.
Written parliamentary questions reveal the Great Western franchise will go out to public consultation in January, and firms will be invited to bid in May. So full steam ahead.
Western Morning News – November 10, 2011
The Westcountry’s push to be the UK’s first “marine park” has been boosted after officials sanctioned a wave energy “nursery” in Falmouth bay.
Falmouth Harbour Commissioners and the Crown Estate have signed a lease to create FabTest, a wave power test site allowing engineers to develop nascent technology in the water.
Proven devices could then graduate to the Wave Hub array, the world’s largest commercial wave energy facility off the West Cornwall coast.
FabTest is the latest piece in the jigsaw of the Westcountry’s growing wave energy industry, which includes electricity generation, academia and engineering expertise scattered across Devon and Cornwall.
Mark Sansom, chief executive of Falmouth Harbour Commissioners, said FabTest, conceived by experts at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus, was licensed to test up to three devices at a time and would not interfere with marine traffic.
The “nursery” will help meet the challenge set by Energy Minister Greg Barker for the South West to prove it should be the country’s first “marine park”.
Johnny Gowdy, programme director of Regen SW, the region’s green energy lobbying group, said: “FabTest is another essential component in the region’s growing offer to the marine energy industry.”
Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council are working up plans for the marine energy park. It is understood the South West is the front-runner, although there is thought to be competition from Scotland.
The park would be “virtual”, spread across sites in Devon and Cornwall. Wave Hub, which is expected to generate electricity from next year, is central to the proposal.
It will also include University of Exeter expertise, a business park under construction in Hayle, Cornwall, and the University of Plymouth, which is building two Olympic pool-sized testing tanks to open next year.
Advantages of the status will be similar to those of the Government’s 23 enterprise zones, such as more local control over planning consent.
The region could also be at the head of the queue for Government cash from the £20 million marine energy development fund and the Regional Growth Fund.
It is thought the Energy Minister could make a decision in the new year.
Westcountry MP Ben Bradshaw yesterday raised the little-heralded issue of back-office NHS functions in the South West being “outsourced”. Little-heralded as, unless I’m mistaken, only Exeter’s Express and Echo had reported on it before the former Labour Health Minister’s debate.
The deal goes something like this: a 50-50 joint venture between the Government and private company Steria want to handle certain administrative tasks for 14 health trusts in the South West. Patient registration, screening, transfer of records. The joint venture – known as NHS Shared Business Services (SBS) – would make sure a GP doesn’t run out of prescription pads.
I won’t pronounce on whether “part-privatisation”, as Mr Bradshaw described it, is right or wrong.
Devon MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP and periodically a critic of NHS reform, is relaxed about letting the private sector carry out X-rays, say, if it is done quicker than by the state. SBS also says £6 million could be saved in the South West, money better spent on doctors and nurses.
Unions and Labour (and even Lib Dem MPs) are concerned about patient care being sacrifcied for profit (although Labour both introduced SBS in 2005 - albeit to prop-up an ailing North London health trust – and offered juicy contracts to get private firms to run independent treatment centres).
Selling off the NHS a piece at a time or introducing much-needed reform? SBS could support either argument.
Anyway, one suspects few in the region know this is happening. Strange when SBS provided an outline proposal in March this year, and a final proposal in June. Ten trusts agreed to sign an “intention to proceed” in September, and NHS staff could be transferred to the new organisation next month. To be clear, no formal contract has been signed yet.
Little detail has been published, not least by the NHS trusts themselves (Devon, Cornwall, Torbay, Plymouth and six more are involved), despite staff already being consulted over transferring to SBS. Health Minister Paul Burstow denied it was a done deal.
As politicians are wont to say, there are many unanswered questions. Not least why four South West trusts – including NHS Somerset - have opted out, and why the East Midlands is the only other region to go this way.
Transport Secretary Justine Greening’s first ministerial statement from the despatch box could not have been in more tragic circumstances.
She confirmed that 37 vehicles were involved in the M5 crash, that seven people died, and 51 people were injured.
Perhaps her most instructive remarks were over how long it would take police to establish the causes of the pile-up.
It may be some weeks until the investigation can conclude on any cause or causes of the incident.
She opted not to dwell on this.
It would be a mistake at this very early stage to speculate about the causes of the collision …. while Avon and Somerset police have indicated that the presence of smoke on the carriageway is a significant line of inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable Bangham has been clear that, in his words to me earlier today, it is “far too early” to jump to conclusions on the causal factors of the incident.
Interesting, though, was the tributes to local heroics.
I would particularly like to pay tribute to the local community, people and businesses in and around Taunton. From local people and hotels offering to accommodate relatives of those injured and members of the public offering support, to local off-duty hospital staff turning up at their hospitals to help to provide care, it was humbling and inspiring to see how selflessly so many people were willing to offer their support to others who needed it.
Plenty of Westcountry MPs made a contribution.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, questioned plans proposed by former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond to raise the motorway speed limit to 80mph
She (Ms Greening) says that the road death figures are still heading in the right direction, but my reading of the latest figures was that, even before this terrible crash, we were looking at the first annual increase in road deaths that this country has seen for 20 years.
As she will know, that is deeply worrying to road safety campaigners and others. Will she at the very least have another look at her predecessor’s plan to encourage faster speeds on the motorways by increasing the speed limit?
Ms Greening cautioned against reading too much into one set of quarterly figures.
We should also be conscious of the fact that levels of road safety can, of course, be affected by the weather, so it is not quite as straightforward as simply saying from looking at those figures that there is an underlying reduction in road safety compared with previous quarters.
Tessa Munt, Lib Dem MP for Wells, spoke of her horror at witnessing the fatal crash.
I do not think I have ever seen anything like what I saw on Friday evening. It was an absolute inferno, and it was impossible for me to leave the car on the southbound carriageway to do anything.
Oliver Colvile, Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, alluded to better transport access to the region after the Westcountry’s spine road was closed for much of the weekend.
The M5 is the only arterial dual carriageway that goes the whole way down. Is the minister willing to meet me and people from the south-west to discuss how we can improve that connectivity, and to find ways to ensure that when the motorway is closed, as it had to be, we can get to and from places much more easily?
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, made a similar point on “connectivity”.
The M5 is the great arterial road into the South West. However, we need to look not only at the M5, but at the A30 and A303, because they are also major roads into the Westcountry.
Ms Greening said it is important the road network is maintained safely.
As I have said, it is important that we wait for the police to go through their investigation into this particular incident, which could take some weeks, before we can draw conclusions on any actions that need to be taken.
Western Morning News – November 7, 2011
Almost £20 million of Government cash has been earmarked for the Westcountry to resurrect stalled housing developments, shopping centres and business parks.
Ministers will today unveil how much of a £500 million loan fund 38 regional bodies will receive to “get Britain building again”.
The Devon and Somerset Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have been provisionally allocated £14.2 million from the so-called Growing Places Fund.
Some £4.2 million has been doled out to the LEP for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
The coalitions of business and local politicians will be urged to draw up rapid-fire plans for “shovel-ready” schemes to get under way within months.
Ministers hailed the “fix-it fund”, but the chairman of a powerful cross-party group of MPs said the fund was too small to aid the economic recovery significantly.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, said: “This fund will make a real difference on the ground, improving the lives of local residents and boosting the local economy.
“From building strategic link roads to reducing congestion, the investment will set businesses free and create jobs.”
The £500 million, a windfall from under-spending across Government, has to be allocated by the end of January, ministers said.
It will be the first test of the mettle of the LEPs, which have assumed the role of driving economies in the region as the Regional Development Agencies are abolished.
Neither Westcountry LEP could say which local developments might be in the reckoning, but Whitehall officials suggested link roads and flood protection would be looked upon favourably.
An example cited is of £1.3 million for a flood defence scheme in Taunton that unlocked almost 6,000 jobs and enabled the development of around 1,500 homes.
Chris Pomfret, Cornwall and Scillies LEP chairman, said: “We are delighted to have been allocated this money.
“We will be working very quickly and efficiently with the councils to see where best it can be used to kickstart economic growth to ensure that we have plans in place for when the money is released in January.”
A spokesman for the Devon and Somerset LEP said: “Our priorities will be to ensure that the funding is used in the most effective way, to ensure realistic and tangible development, not aspirational projects.
“It must lever the maximum possible match-funding from the private sector.”
Ministers are concerned development of housing estates, offices and factories are not coming to fruition because no-one is willing to pay for link roads, flood prevention schemes and other essential infrastructure.
The one-off fund is based on the Regional Infrastructure Fund, pioneered by the South West Regional Development Agency.
The fund was the first of its kind in the country.
A £22 million investment paid for a package of infrastructure projects to pave the way for the delayed development of the new community at Cranbrook, near Exeter.
It included motorway junction improvements, new roads and a new railway station. Once the scheme is up and running the developer pays back the loan.
But Clive Betts, chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, said: “This seems to have given Danny Alexander a nice announcement but in reality one or two schemes might be built which might not otherwise have been built – which is welcome – but its impact is going to be minimal.”