Cornwall: Can we stand up for ourselves?

Posted on: 20th May 2011

Originally posted in 2007.

In the coming days we have one of those rare opportunities, which come along once in a while, to decide what sort of Cornwall we want.

Are we self-confident enough to take a genuine risk, to demonstrate the passion, resolve and ambition needed to build a more powerful accountable government in Cornwall? Or would we prefer to be timid, diffident and defeatist and resign ourselves with muddling along with the present miniscule powers which are collectively held by the 331 councillors who are represented on the seven bodies which manage some public services across Cornwall?

In Cornwall we have for so long got so used to not being able to take real decisions that we have become pliant and deferential; waiting for others to take decisions for us rather than thinking for ourselves. So much so that the whole idea of actually standing up for ourselves appears to many to be both troubling and implausible.

Like most other parts of the country – except, of course, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London – successive Governments have so emasculated local councils and reduced their actual capacity to make decisions that they have become little more than Agents of Central Government, rather than the Local Authorities they are often called.

Most Councillors protest (in public at least) at this description but privately acknowledge that it’s true.

My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that our Councillors will choose the timid rather than ambitious option, against a backdrop of narrow tribal political point scoring and shroud waving.

Labour councillors will attack what is essentially a Labour Government initiative. Self styled “Cornish Assembly campaigners” will be happy to join in the opportunistic criticisms but won’t tell us how else they could achieve their claimed objective. And district councillors who, only weeks ago, voted for their own (and the county council’s) abolition to create a Single Unitary Authority will, miraculously, now find it possible to argue strongly against the idea.

The dairy industry could collapse with all of this butter not melting in their mouths…

On the other hand, the criticisms and the risks of the Government’s favoured bid for a new authority in Cornwall need to be answered.

If everything is run from Truro, if it fails to make any savings, if it fails to bring meaningful power to Cornwall then it would not be worth doing. Merely rearranging the deckchairs on the leaky colander of local government is a pointless exercise. Indeed, I have also made many criticisms of the details of the County Council’s bid, which I have made known.

The matter before us is one of judgement and an assessment of political risk. Everyone I know who supports a single strategic government body for Cornwall agrees that the above criticisms deserve further reassurance.

There are two bedrock principles upon which the whole thing should be based. Some have described these as the ‘double devolution’ settlement.

The first is that none of the ‘pain’ of re-organisation should commence until the Government has guaranteed that there will be substantial ‘gain’ in terms of powers devolved to Cornwall.

Many of us have been campaigning for Cornish Assembly powers for some time. There is a good chance that we could achieve this. But we stand a better chance of succeeding if we campaign together, standing shoulder to shoulder and speaking strongly with one concerted voice.

But what would this mean? At the moment many decisions are taken by people appointed by the Government representing unelected Quangos and other agencies operating across the Government zone of the south west. But wouldn’t it be better if those decisions at least were taken by locally accountable, directly elected representatives who have the best interests of Cornwall – rather than their pay masters in Whitehall – at heart?

Let’s be honest. Who do you think should decide:

whether we should build the equivalent of five new Penzances in the next 15 years?

how many of the homes to be built should be “affordable” to local people ?

how much taxpayers’ money should be spent in private rather than local NHS hospitals?

how best to protect NHS dentistry?

how European and other economic development aid should be spent?

what Cornwall’s economic development priorities should be?

Should these matters be decided by Government appointed agents based in Bristol or elsewhere (as at present) or by representatives elected to a Cornish body? There is no justification to allow these matters to be taken out of the hands of those who are most accountable to the community who have to then live with their decisions.

The second principle of ‘double devolution’ is that decisions which affect only one community should be made by people in that community and not by people outside it. For example, there is no reason why residents in Penzance should have their neighbourhood parking arrangements decided by elected representatives from Saltash and Bude.

Those Parish and Town Councils with the vision, ambition and ability should be given the chance to take on a much greater role in the running of local services in their village or town, than they have at present.

In the coming days we have an opportunity to demonstrate ambition and resolve – to take the argument to the Government. The omens don’t look good. But if we can shake off our centuries-long deferential attitude, the defeatism and cynicism that has pervaded Cornwall in the past and then side step the tiresome party political tribalism which has suffocated so much initiative, we could be on the verge of giving this great and unique region of the UK a springboard for the future.

Andrew George MP 18th June 2007