For some while Lanner, along with other parish councils, has urged Cornwall Council to take a more public and dynamic role in getting a better deal for the county from central government and it’s certainly heartening to see the Council beating a drum. However, is “The Case for Cornwall” the right drum to be playing?
One of the main threads in the demands made in “The Case For Cornwall” is that Cornwall’s financial problems can be solved either internally or by receiving a percentage of national taxes raised within the county. Cornwall has the poorest economy in England. Perversely, it is also a net provider to the Exchequer’s coffers. We do not have the wealth base within the county to solve our problems of low earnings, long standing neglect and a population that doubles for six months of the year but whose contribution into public infrastructure is a negative one. We need a nationally run programme of wealth redistribution from the South East into the poorer rural areas of which Cornwall is the outstanding example. Devolution is not a cure for economic poverty (though it can address lots of other issues): the prerequisite for that is the creation and fair distribution of wealth.
The second false assumption is that Cornwall Council, as an institution, has the backing of the population and that it has the capacity to deliver what the people want. It is failing on a daily basis in both respects as more and more services are cut or completely withdrawn. There is an overwhelming view that it is remote, unwieldy, inefficient, unfair, incapable and uninterested in the delivery of services which people want and need and more interested in its own wellbeing than in serving the people. There is a need for a strategic body for Cornwall (whether it be a Cornwall County Council or a Cornish Assembly) but delivery of services requires (three?) district level application. Town and Parish Councils cannot accept the “devolution” burden without diseconomies of scale and a huge increase in both “Clerk hours” and the unpaid time of local councillors. So much of what Cornwall Council is looking to achieve depends on devolution to the parishes. Where this doesn’t happen we expect to see services cease or be privatised.
The third assumption is that Cornwall Council has the financial capability of running proposed new funding streams to deliver what is needed. The record suggests otherwise. Cornwall Council’s insistence that heavy cuts made early on would produce a comparative advantage later shows no evidence of being a prudent move. Thanks to the magic of compounding, Council Tax freezes can now be seen as a totally false strategy. In fact, the political thought behind the Council Tax freeze was that Town and Parish Councils would pick up the tab through their precepting powers: unfortunately for Cornwall Council their ability to “devolve” didn’t keep pace with that aspiration. Neither do we forget the failures to deliver promises contained in the establishment of the so-called “arm’s-length” companies and Cornwall Council’s attachment to high capital cost projects devoid of adequate finance for running them.
The “required savings” referred to in the Case for Cornwall are an absolute travesty and it is tragic that these should be accepted as inevitable.
Much is made of Cornwall’s distance from London as being a key reason for “self-sufficiency”, but we are an inter-dependent society. In an age of communication revolution this “distance” is mainly mythological and in economic terms our markets are not so much determined by proximity to London as our access to the M5 and to Europe and beyond via Plymouth and Falmouth. Our geography is well suited to improving market access and generating demand for Brand Cornwall.
The Unitary Authority experiment has not been good for Cornwall nor has it proved good for the stress placed on the army of public spirited Cornwall Councillors and Council employees who have tried to make it work. It is now seriously undermining the needs and aspirations of those it is in place to serve. The support provided to our care homes is at a dangerous level, our police force is depleted beyond comfort, our roads are inadequately maintained and rural public transport is close to becoming an option no more: and so it goes on.
We are being pressed on a weekly basis to show support for “The Case for Cornwall” but there appears no means of registering disagreement. Notwithstanding that, please accept this letter as disagreement with the strategy and solutions it puts forward although fully sympathetic to the frustrations which underlie the document.
Chairman. Lanner Parish Council.