4 June 2007
There is a possibility of local government reorganisation and limited devolution in Cornwall by way of a unitary council. Two arguments have emerged: Is a unitary council an idea to be taken up? and How do people in Cornwall get a say? I’m here primarily concerned with the latter question.
The case for limited devolution anywhere in England rests on taking power from the central goverment and its appointed or indirectly elected agencies and giving it to the locals; more power to the people who live here rather than in remote Westminster. Locals, the argument goes, the people on the ground here, know best about what is needed and wanted locally and should decide. Indeed, the Labour government in its letter of 26 October 2006 inviting unitary proposals spoke of such proposals needing to “empower local people so that they have the power to influence decisions that affect their lives” (paragraph 3.9.ii). It’s an attractive and persuasive argument though there remains the difficulty of post code lottery and the form of devolution is arguable.
Incidentally, the description of the proposals as a single council for Cornwall is misleading. If I understand them, there will also be additionally at least sixteen community networks (sort of forums/councils) and presumably the present 209 town and parish councils will remain.
Why should people in Cornwall get a vote on the proposals?
Although the government wrongly put the stress on consulting and securing the agreement of “stakeholders and partners” for a unitary council – for example, the fire service but not individual firemen in Cornwall – it also said in its invitation letter that a change to unitary arrangements should have support from a range of people and groups including “service users/citizens” (paragraph 3.5). That means members of the public, and how can their views be discovered except by asking them?
It is sensible to see whether the proposed unitary changes command public support. What do people in Cornwall think? What’s the best way to find out what people think? Easy, you ask them, you organise a vote. At the end of the day a yes-or-no decision will be made by the government to go ahead or not with a unitary Cornwall council so it makes sense to ask the people of Cornwall to vote Yes or No. That way we get a clear result from people. The government should have insisted on a poll of every adult in Cornwall.
Consultation by leaflet
Cornwall county council, controlled by a Liberal Democrat majority, has proposed a unitary council. A binding referendum on the unitary issue would not be legal but an advisory poll is. The county council could have gone for such a countywide poll to ascertain what the people of Cornwall want, whether they support or oppose a unitary council, and the result would have been an unmistakable expression of people’s views, giving them genuine influence over the decision. Conservative and Labour county councillors pressed for a popular vote.
However, the Libdem county council rejected the clarity of a yes-or-no poll and has chosen instead to consult people through an oblique approach. Consequently every household is being sent an informative leaflet asking for their views – but not containing a straightforward yes-or-no voting slip. The public is asked on a post-paid slip “What do you think about” the creation of a unitary council for Cornwall? The slip also invites people to “send any further comments” to the county council.
The leaflet presents a good general case for a unitary council and it certainly is a good idea to give people information about the proposals but, damagingly, the county leaflet contains only the case in favour of a unitary council with no doubts expressed; for example, the serious challenge to the unitary financial arithmetic is unmentioned. This is wholly unacceptable: people are not given the counterarguments and therefore this leaflet does not help them make a truly informed choice. Read the whole leaflet at www.cornwall.gov.uk.
Thus a clear vote for people is avoided, leaving the responses to be interpreted by the county council. Consultation seems to mean asking people for their views without actually asking them directly and simply whether they approve or oppose the unitary proposals. Only one side of the arguments is presented. This is a seriously wrong approach for a party that has the words liberal and democrat in its title.
District councils give people a balanced leaflet and a vote
Fortunately for most people in Cornwall, they will also receive a balanced leaflet and a vote from district councils, who will be abolished under the unitary proposals and who oppose them. North Cornwall district council has produced its own leaflet which strikes me as a very fair one; it sets out the county council’s unitary case and in a separate column its own counterarguments, along with a post-paid voting slip. This is going to a random six thousand houses in North Cornwall. Details of all this are at www.ncdc.gov.uk.
Penwith, Kerrier, Caradon, and Carrick district councils, four of the six Cornwall district councils, are going to have a direct “Do you want” yes-or-no postal vote around the unitary council question for all the people in those four areas. There is a balanced leaflet with the unitary case and some of the persuasive counterarguments of Michael Chisholm (Department of Geography, Cambridge University) and a yes-no postpaid voting card. The district councils’ leaflet and the full Chisholm paper can be read at www.kerrier.gov.uk. These four councils, along with North Cornwall, have taken seriously the government talk of empowering people and giving them influence.
Whatever the vote result, the district leaflets and polls are seriously embarrassing for the outdemocratted Liberal Democrat county council. The decision not to have a public poll and to put out at taxpayers’ expense a leaflet which presents only one side of the argument is lamentable.
The figures for the cost of shifting to a unitary council and the likely savings from one rather than the present mixture of county and district councils in Cornwall are now bewilderingly varied. They range from £19 million to £27.8 million in set up costs and £6 million to £17 million in annual savings.